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Meta-data shelta-data, who cares?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 13, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 3: Meta-data never lies…


Now some people will say that they have nothing to hide…and besides its only meta-data…that’s not even real data, what could they learn from that?

Let’s explore a hypothetical to make a point…

Imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning and saw someone going through your garbage…what if they did that every day…what if they didn’t actually take anything but made notes about what you threw out, where you shopped, who sent you mail…

How would you feel if every time you looked around there was someone making a note of where you were…who you talked to…what you bought…what time you arrived at work, when you left…

Likely you would be outraged and call the cops…your lawyer! Well that is what we are talking about with meta-data.

Untitled-4It is the fact that meta-data is virtual…we can’t see, touch or smell it…this virtual-ness allows us to overlook the fact that it’s real and can affect our lives.

There has been much comment made that the government is not, in general, listening in on our phone conversations. Well, there are two points to ponder on this.

First, it is not clear if VOIP…voice over IP, Skype for example…is considered a “PHONE CALL” or just internet data. The major protections of privacy were enacted several technological generations ago, then the only meta-data you could get from a land line was where it was and who lived in the house.

Because cell phones provide so much more meta-data…remember we are great generators of metadata already mentioned…the conversation itself becomes only a minor part of the data that can be mined.

TrackingMetadataThis brings me to the second point about why listening in on a conversation…the data…may not be as fruitful as you might think compared to meta-data.

I mentioned in the previous segment praising Big Data, how we have become fountains of data. Well, that data can be used to serve us or abuse us.

You might ask, how is the non-verbal part of my call more revealing that the talking part?

Let’s envision a classic call – “Hello honey. Sorry I am going to be a little late. Eat supper; I should be home by 10”.

That’s the call…from that you would guess they were staying late at the office working hard.

However if we look at the meta-data, we find the call was made while they were driving to the tourist district.

That after the call to their “Honey”, they made another call…you cross reference the number to a directory database and find the number is for “Jimmy’s Last Resort Loans”…they used their phone to pay for parking at a particular address.

From his bank card you see he made a large transfer from the company account for cash.

You can see by their built-in GPS that the phone stopped at the address of Lucky Louie’s Casino.

It also shows you that the person stayed there for several hours and that their phone directed to send all calls to voice mail…

Well I could go on, but you get the message; we don’t have a hard worker but a gambling addict. The voice part we are aware of and can easily disguise or ‘encode’ our conversations. We can’t do that to your digital shadow.

You can find out a lot from the metadata…perhaps much more than just listening in. In this thought experiment, the conversation taken alone painted a very different and inaccurate picture of scene than the meta-data…meta-data never lies.

So, far from being harmless and unimportant. In the information age, we must learn that our meta-data is as personal as our DNA and much easier for others to collect…analyse…and abuse!

In Part 4, we will discuss how Big Data erodes democracy…



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