Friday, June 14, 2013

Metadata, dragnet approaches and the law.


Traditionally, Metadata is descriptive data that is added to data, in order to categorise and identify it. So a database of crime records might be tagged as "shooting" to start with, then extra descriptive data is added to indicate the type of firearms being used.  Twitter uses metadata where you have the original data (the tweet) and embedded in it are hashtags to help you categorize that tweet so others can find it.  In Facebook, you have status updates and photos that are data in themselves, but you can add in the names of people to both of these.

It also applies to objects.  For instance, your first name is data that was added after your birth to identify you within a family - and your surname is metadata to identify your family unit in society, but the government doesn't see this as enough, so they add new attributes about you - such as seen on your passport hair/eye colour, or tax brackets and social insurance numbers.

It is this metadata that is at the heart of the NSA program that has now blown into a multinational farce of trust.

As always the media largely is missing a few things in what it tells people - take the Verizon phone data as an example:  You have the phone records which tell the government who has been phoning people that are suspected terrorist, but these records also hold routing information for the call, which in turn gives away your location.  Now, in the "US vs Jones" case, last year, we saw that installing a GPS tracking device on a suspects car did constitute a search.  If that's the case, then so does this.

And this is where the lines get really blurry.  On the one hand, I'm all for helping to stop terrorism but on the other hand, I'm not for it at the expense of flouting the laws.  

You can argue that dragnet approaches nearly always end up like this scandal has, where the people it's supposed to protect are actually the ones that feel the most hurt by it.

You can equally argue that this is where too much metadata leads us every time, too.  You only have to look at the privacy issues and concerns that we regularly see around Google and Facebook to understand that at the root of both is the amount of metadata they have on you.  They have so much, that both Google and Facebook know about people not in their systems.

That is ultimately what these government programs are trying to achieve as well.