Everything You Need to Know About Metadata

Start at the Beginning: Metadata has been part of your entire life no matter when you were born. But in the digital age it has become a polarising buzzword.

Tell Me More: Metadata is simply information about information. Old-fashioned library card catalogues are metadata: they don’t include the contents of each book, but do list each book’s title, author, publisher, year of publication and subject area (fiction, history, art, etc). With enough time and patience you could use this metadata to identify every book the library had on a particular subject, by a particular author or from a particular year.

“We kill people based on metadata.”
General Michael Hayden, former director of the US National Security Agency and CIA.

And in the Digital Age? Unlike those old hand-compiled catalogues, digital files automatically amass metadata. Even simple word-processing files can store information on who created the file and when, who edited it and for how long, the file size and more. Digital cameras can show when and where a photo was taken. When you make a phone call, your telecommunications provider gathers data on what number you called, how long you spoke for and where both parties were during the call. Web browsing leaves tracks. Most of us generate massive amounts of metadata each day.

“Smart criminals will devise ways to get around the law.”
George Brandis, Australian attorney-general, on the introduction of data-retention laws.

What Use Is It? Governments around the world are increasingly keen to access and analyse metadata generated by their own citizens and others. Proponents say they are only looking for suspicious patterns, not examining content, and it is an essential tool for national security. In March this year, Australia’s attorney-general, George Brandis, introduced laws requiring phone and internet providers to keep customers’ metadata for two years, saying, “Metadata is the basic building block in nearly every counter-terrorism, counter-espionage and organised crime investigation.” Others have serious concerns.

5 BILLION: The number of mobile phone locations being tracked worldwide by the US National Security Agency each day in 2013, as revealed by controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The Arguments Against: Opponents say metadata retention will deter informed confidential sources from revealing information the public needs to know, because their identity cannot be protected. They also say ordinary citizens are at risk of being falsely suspected. US Law and Public Policy Professor David Cole gives the example of a person calling their aunt, who had called a pizza delivery driver who had once been phoned by someone with suspected terrorist links. Tenuous as this chain is, it’s enough, says Cole, to put the original caller on security agencies’ suspicion lists.

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