Originally published in The Reasoner Volume 10, Number 4– March 2016
The Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour brought the concept of metadata to the attention of general audiences. As one scene of the film explains, we leave, mostly unwillingly, many digital traces of our daily activities. Most Londoners, for instance, use an Oyster card to travel across the city. When they top-up their Oyster online or opt in for the convenient auto top-up, they effectively allow whoever has access to the data, to track their routine. (And the recent introduction of contactless payment on the London transport system clearly made this even simpler.) This can then be linked to what people buy, what they read on the internet, what they post on social networks, and indeed, to what other people do. That’s metadata.
It goes without saying that metadata is syntax with no semantics. There are many reasons as to why people do what they do, and there are many people travelling independently on the same journey. Quite obviously then, the dots representing their digital traces can be joined in a number of distinct ways, and possibly found to draw specific but wrong pictures. That’s why the Owellian idea that someone possesses a wealth of metadata about us is indeed frightening. But knowing that governments may kill based on that, is rather hard to accept.
The opening of this recent piece by C. Grothoff and J.M. Porup on Arstechnica UK is chilling:
In 2014, the former director of both the CIA and NSA proclaimed that “we kill people based on metadata.” Now, a new examination of previously published Snowden documents suggests that many of those people may have been innocent.
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