About metadata

About metadata

This post is a little bit different to most of them; I think it’s important though.

I was reading today (in Wired) about the so-called “Snooper’s Charter” - the Investigatory Powers act of 2016.  Apparently trials are underway of mass meta-data collection - all your browsing history and every online request you make will be collected and stored by your ISP, to allow for later analysis.  Although the exact parameters of all this are unclear, as the ISPs are not even allowed to say whether they are taking part.

You could argue that “if you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear”.  This is just metadata that they’re collecting, after all.

But metadata is valuable.

Take these pieces of metadata:

Subject A calls a taxi firm from their home at 7pm on a Friday night.

Subject A then calls a taxi firm from a location in a well-known red light district at 11pm on that same Friday night.

Subject A then calls a sexual health clinic the next morning.

Pure metadata, all circumstantial, but there’s a story there.

What about when people say “my phone is listening to me?”

Here’s another scenario.

Alice and Bob are friends.  They meet in the park one day and chat about speedboats.  This isn’t a topic they’ve ever discussed before but Bob happened to watch a documentary about them last night on (traditional offline) TV and was wondering how much they cost to buy.  A day later, Bob sees adverts for speedboats across all his browsing.  He never spoke about speedboats to anyone except Alice - so surely his phone was listening to him?  This is really creepy isn’t it?

Or maybe this:

Bob met Alice in the park.  Their two phones do a background notification check so both send Facebook metadata showing that they are in the same location.  Bob and Alice are Facebook friends.  When she returns home, Alice does a search for speedboats and ends up on a page that has the Facebook pixel installed.  Facebook now knows Alice is (temporarily at least) interested in speedboats and also knows that her friend Bob met her a few minutes before.  So Facebook takes a chance and shows Bob adverts to speedboats.

If advertising companies can make those types of inferences from the tiny bits of metadata they collect about us, just imagine what type of inferences could be made from collecting all your metadata.

What do you think?  Are we about to step into the world of pre-crime?

Rahoul Baruah

Rahoul Baruah

Rubyist since 1.8.6. Freelancer since 2007, dedicated to building incredible, low-cost, bespoke software for tiny businesses. Also CTO at Collabor8Online.
Leeds, England