Metadata Collection Violates Our Right to Privacy

By: Lee Rickwood

July 24, 2013

It’s hard to believe there’s any doubt about it – why would anyone believe mass amounts of information are NOT being collected?

From the point of view of search engine and social network operators, retail advertisers and mass marketers, political parties and their pollsters, law enforcement or public security agencies, the more information the better. That’s how they do business!

Graphic from Metadata PrimerDigital information has obvious value, and it is clear both technically and operationally that our online communications and digital activities can be linked and traced with relative ease, with or without our knowledge.

So the firestorm that’s erupted as a result of the latest reports that information, data and metadata is collected without our knowledge is something akin to a weatherman predicting the sun’s early morning arrival.

This time, however, a somewhat confusing, distracting and obfuscating term is being thrown around with greater frequency – metadata.

‘Your phone calls are not being recorded,’ officials scrambled to explain. ‘It’s just metadata.’ It sounds safer than ‘information’ is being collected.

But metadata can actually be just as revealing as the content of our communications, perhaps more so, according to Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Ann Cavoukian.

She’s written and spoken about data collection many times before, of course, and she has pointed out instances where such activities may violate every Canadians’ essential freedoms.

In response to those recent revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency, and its sweeping surveillance of the public’s metadata, she’s concerned that term is being used without an appropriate explanation or appreciation of what it means.

So she has released an informative primer about metadata, describing it and its importance to digital security and data privacy, and explaining how analyzing metadata actually can actually be more revealing than accessing the content of our communications.

“This primer underlines the importance of rejecting the outdated view that security trumps privacy and liberty. Canadians and Americans, like so many other freedom loving people, have given their lives for constitutional rights that say otherwise,” she said. “We must band together and seek measures designed to provide for both security and privacy, in an accountable and transparent manner – our freedom and liberty may depend on it.”

Metadata is often described as ‘data about data’; that’s a useful definition of descriptive metadata, and the actual data content or application data being described. Structural metadata describes the data container rather than its contents, and it conveys information about the design and function and specification of those containers.

Even without the message, then, metadata is an incredibly powerful and revealing tool.

Ironically, then U.S. Senator and now U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said it straight out several years ago, (when criticizing the Bush administration’s collection of calling data): “I don’t have to listen to your phone calls to know what you’re doing… I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive….” He said.

As Dr. Cavoukian’s report underscores, you don’t need the actual conversation to gain access to valuable information; metadata can reveal details of an individual’s personal, political, social, financial, and working life through analysis.

Sometimes, those big data analysts themselves come forward to confirm such capabilities, such as Edward Snowden but also other N.S.A. whistleblowers, including Thomas Drake or William Binney, or former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau, author of Surveillance or Security?

“The public doesn’t understand,” she told New Yorker blogger and author Jane Meyer, speaking about so-called metadata. “It’s much more intrusive than content.” Landau told Meyer that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.”

Ontario's Privacy Commissioner

Ontario Privacy Commissioner Dr. Ann Cavoukian.

Likewise, Dr Cavoukian’s paper disputes claims that the information being captured in N.S.A. Prism-like activities is not sensitive, not revealing not privacy-invasive; metadata, the paper outlines, can actually be more revealing than its content.

Canada’s national privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, is also concerned about the gathering of metadata, and how US government activities may or may not affect Canadians. She says her office will investigate the issue going forward, and she knows from previous projects funded through the Privacy Commissioner’s office that Canadian data regularly is exposed to U.S. jurisdictional regulation, as much of our online communications actually passes through the territorial U.S., even e-mails from one Canadian to another.

That includes our metadata.

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