Metadata: More Intrusive Than You Think

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette


Simply put, metadata is data about data. It is descriptive information about a particular data set, object, or resource, including how it is formatted, and when and by whom it was collected. Although metadata most commonly refers to web resources, it can be about either physical or electronic resources.

Sounds harmless, so how bad could it be? According to mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau who was interviewed by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, it’s worse than many might think:

“The public doesn’t understand,” she told me, speaking about so-called metadata. “It’s much more intrusive than content.” She explained that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening-you don’t need the content.”

For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.

Metadata, Landau noted, can also reveal sensitive political information, showing, for instance, if opposition leaders are meeting, who is involved, where they gather, and for how long. Such data can reveal, too, who is romantically involved with whom, by tracking the locations of cell phones at night.

Ms. Landua joined Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh on Democracy Now to explain just how intrusive the government’s collection of metadata is.

Transcript can be read here.


  1. TMC
  2. terryhallinan

    Man these statisticians really are boring people.

    Best,  Terry

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