Different Uses of Metadata

When reading this week’s articles regarding metadata, I was reminded of the time I first was introduced to the term. It was sometime last year, while watching “Citizenfour,” which  chronicles Edward Snowden’s final eight days in Hong Kong after leaking hundreds of thousands of classified US documents that brought to light a massive global surveillance program carried it out in tandem by a handful of the most developed countries in the world. Basically, it seems that every kind of communication imaginable is recorded by the world powers and stored indefinitely.

So how are these programs related to metadata? When 9/11 happened, the NSA didn’t have any answers for the Bush administration. To combat any potential future terrorist threats, an NSA system was created to intercept and store every digital communication, every radio communication, every analog communication that takes place globally. The storing of this data allows users of the system (with top secret clearances) to retroactively search this vast database of communication links based on what Snowden calls “selectors,” or pieces of metadata, “any kind of thing…that might uniquely or almost uniquely identify you as an individual” such as email addresses, IP addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, etc. These are all considered metadata about us. If you put enough of them together, they tell a story that can possibly be used against you. To make it worse, the biggest names in the tech world, the ones whose services we spend most of our time with (like Facebook, Google, Skype, Apple…) are handing all of this metadata over to these central repositories of data.

Check out the below Powerpoint slide of the X Keyscore tool which seems to store public online sessions. At this point, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that they have machine-learning software to automatically sift through all of our incoming metadata and steadily build an ever-growing network of relationships between the data that tell a whole lot about a person’s daily life. Maybe there’s even a database somewhere where each of us have our respective place.

That thought is chilling and makes me think… Does this have any effect on your willingness to converse in the realm of digital rhetoric? And for a better understanding of metadata and their place in online privary, check out this short video…

X Keyscore



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3 Responses to Different Uses of Metadata

  1. Carla Aviles-Jimenez says:

    You make a very compelling and chilling point of privacy from the metadata that essentially categorizes us as individuals. Again, something that perhaps people do not think about on the daily basis, especially since we see that metadata is basically everywhere in our lives. We see metadata at work when we narrow our search of something by clicking on metadata categories. If we can do this in our daily lives and the choices, what is to stop the government or people in power from collecting information on everyone? Now an argument can be made that the government’s use is legitimate for national security purposes, hence the response to 9/11. However, the metadata that belongs to us individually like social security numbers, credit scores, IP addresses, and credit card numbers make us prey to hackers and identity thieves. Moreover, despite the argument for data collection by the government, there is still the question of whether such collection is unconstitutional infringement on our right to privacy, a topic debated today. Rhetoric thus once again plays an important role in making such decisions. People in power decide what data about you is important, and make resulting decisions about you based on this information. Metadata is everywhere and categorizes everything, including all of us. While we may say we are each individually unique as human beings, to others we are merely within a category based on numbers.

  2. Gabriella Bulgarelli says:

    Hi Zach. I think you make an intriguing observation about the developments of metadata within the modern world. When it comes to your ultimate question towards the latter part of your post I have to say I have a pretty clearcut response. In my personal opinion (which may be different from many others) I think that the answer is simple: yes. If it boils down to it and one feels threatened, they may open accounts under false names or provide fictitious data (although this may make it harder to build and maintain more extended, resourceful networks). I can’t find myself anything but ready, willing and able to converse in the realm of digital rhetoric. Ready–because society has prepared me to thrive in both a leisurely and fast paced manner in the technological realm. Willing–because not only has society prepared almost every other person within my networks to converse but created my network in general, the only way for me to gain access to this society is the routine maintenance and development of my online persona. Able–because of the advancements which continuously occur to enable people to do more and more online. If this means I give up my personal information to the government, so be it. Hopefully I’m not hacked by any third-party people/organizations or creepy catfishers, but the detriments are superimposed by the benefits in this regard. Many users blindly, tacitly adopt the same mindset as me because of things like friend/user selection, where the idea that you choose who may be in your networks/circles/gardens distracts you from the fact that you may be incriminating or exposing yourself in some way.

  3. Thomas Alexander says:

    Hey Zach,

    Your post made me think about a humorous interview that John Oliver did with Edward Snowden (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEVlyP4_11M [fast forward a bit to get to the interview]). In the interview, Oliver rather humorously and plainly questions Snowden about the abilities of NSA programs. He does this by asking whether specific NSA programs can collect his “dick pics”. (It’s really funny but also incredibly easy to understand.) What I noticed when Snowden was answering Oliver’s questions is that the NSA’s authority is largely based upon metadata. In almost every response, Snowden walks through how an NSA program might be able to obtain John’s “dick pic,” and each time he explains what metadata they use to collect it. Typically, if an email or text is routed through an international network, it is tagged as of interest and catalogued in the database. The interest of a singular data point that bulk collection is gauged largely by where connections are made after it is sent.

    Obviously, that’s an invasion of privacy and immoral because it’s tagging an individual as potentially dangerous based upon who they contact. And as I mull that thought over in my mind, it makes me think about all the metadata we collect and how we process it to make assumptions about the world and people around us. Bulk collection by NSA is dehumanizing and wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse the assumptions that we, knowingly or unknowingly, based upon the metadata we gather about people.

    Playing devil’s advocate to myself though, we also consider some assumptions based upon metadata to be more legitimate than others. If somebody is assumed to be a terrorist because they are Muslim, that’s an illegitimate claim. But if somebody is assumed to be a terrorist because they are getting large shipments of Uranium to their house, that’s a legitimate claim. That’s obviously a hyperbolic example, but it does get to the heart of an important distinction that we need to ponder. What metadata makes assumptions legitimate and what metadata doesn’t? Obviously, the NSA should be allowed to collect one and not the other. But who are we to condemn the NSA if we still continue the illegitimate pattern of collection and assumption? I think it’s important to examine our own biases and recognize that we collect metadata and process it in a similar fashion to the NSA. I don’t think there is a silver bullet to fixing the NSA, but it might help if we examine ourselves for imperfections first.

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