President Obama says the government is not listening to your phone calls. Rather the National Security Administration is just collecting metadata. But what exactly is metadata and how does it affect our privacy?
Robert Knudsen, an analyst for Global Digital Forensics – a company specializing in cyber security, explains that, “Metadata essentially is data about data.”
It’s created every time we text and tweet, call and e-mail. If the data is a picture made up of pixels, the metadata is the time, date, and location that picture was taken.
Knudsen says in the app age of smartphones, people are leaving long trails of metadata every single day.
He continues, “When you take a picture and send it to someone, there could be information imbedded in that picture that tells us where it was taken and when”.
But as we continue to fill silos at server farms with detail after detail of metadata, the laws that apply to that data struggle to keep pace.
Tim Bukher, an Internet lawyer who deals with cases involving metadata, says, “As is the case with any advance in technology, and this has always been the case, legislation lags far behind.”
He states the last time the Supreme Court ruled on metadata was back in the late 1970’s and recalls, “this case dealt with whether they need a warrant to tap just the number that you’re dialing and the Supreme Court found no you don’t.”
Fast forward to 2013 and turns out the NSA is harvesting the metadata from those dialed phone calls. Sure they may not be listening to the actual calls, but if you’re dialing Planned Parenthood or an aids clinic, you might be able to narrow down the topic of conversation. And Bukher says just knowing that you spoke with a physician may not just violate your privacy, it could also violate HIPPA laws.
“The very fact that you may have consulted with a doctor or went to a doctor’s office or went to a hospital, just the act of that, could be considered protected health information,” he explains.
Some have argued that the massive metadata harvests might be too large to make any sense out of. But keep in mind Google can sort through billions, maybe trillions of web pages in seconds.
Bukher predicts, “Certainly if we can do that, the government does have programs that can sort through the metadata.”
However, metadata can also be helpful, acting as sort of a digital Dewey decimal system for the entire world. Imagine leaving your wallet in a cab and tracking it down through metadata from a credit card payment.
“I don’t think it’s bad to have the data, but what are we doing with it?” Knudsen asks.
And ultimately the fate of a simple system of zeros and ones will likely be settled in a complex court case weighing security versus privacy.