One of President Obama’s pushbacks on the phone monitoring flap is that folks shouldn’t worry because the government is just collecting “metadata”.
My first reaction was; “How many folks know what metadata is?”
My 2nd reaction was: “Does he have any idea what metadata is?”
For the record, Wiki says that the term metadata refers to “data about data”.
The term is ambiguous, as it is used for two fundamentally different concepts (types).
Structural metadata is about the design and specification of data structures and is more properly called “data about the containers of data”.
Descriptive metadata, on the other hand, is about individual instances of application data, the data content.
In this case, a useful description would be “data about data content” … “metacontent”.
That definition got me thinking: “Man, there’s a lot of info in phone metadata – calling number, called number, time, call duration, location”
Note: The President left out “location” in his remarks … hmmm.
Why might this “metadata” be troubling to folks?
Let’s work through a hypothetical …
Say that an organization – maybe a Tea Party – holds a “small government” rally on the Washington Mall.
And, let’s say that many of the participants call friends & family from the rally … or text them … or shoot them a picture.
First, it’s easy to ID all of the calls (and texts and pics) originating from the Mall while the rally was going on.
Time and location are part of the metadata.
And, it’s easy to link the cell numbers to names and addresses … without any sort of court order.
For fun, try Googling your phone number.
If it’s a landline, you’re likely to get a name and address;
For cells, you’re likely to get a location and a link to a paid “reverse phone number site”
Tech note: If address can’t be determined by a simple look-up, it can be easily mined from GPS data that underlies the location metadata.
Just ID the location from which a phone places and receives most of its calls and you’ve probably IDed a home.
With a home address, a person’s ID is just a click away
Next, it’s easy to ID the call recipient … that’s also part of the metadata.
With the call recipient’s number, you can query the metadata — for info on calls placed and received — to figure out his network — who he phone chats with.
You’re able to build a relatively complete roster of Tea Party members.
That’s benign, right?
Yeah, unless a couple of rogue agents decide to target the members with, say, IRS audits … or OSHA audits … or FBI investigations.
But, not to worry …
You’re protected by Congressional oversight.
That worked pretty well to preclude IRS targeting of conservative political groups, right?
P.S. Biggest disappointment from the President’s remarks was that he didn’t say that he found out about when from the newspapers — just like us … and that he didn’t commit to: get to the bottom of the matter and hold people accountable.”