Recent news stories have brought the term “metadata” to general public awareness. These developments often mention the privacy issues and spying concerns regarding US security and the NSA (National Security Agency). Leaked documents indicated that the NSA has been collecting vast amounts of information on almost every communication and network activity in and outside of the country. These communications include phone calls, emails, and text messages. As a whole, this data is classified as metadata. What is metadata, and what use is it?
Metadata are the external markers embedded in our communications. It is the compounded groups of different data collected over a wide range of networks. In the matter of surveillance, the NSA has been collecting records of almost every cell phone call, text message and email sent on a day to day basis, in the US and within other intranets around the globe.
The specific types of information gathered include when and where a phone call or text message was sent and received. In addition, email correspondence can be tracked via time, location and through what device according to a MAC address. Instead of knowing what a person said during a phone call, this metadata is utilized to predict where a person may go, or what number they may call. It can be accessed for a complete record of GPS locations pertaining to previous correspondence and physical location. The combined information paints a picture the organization can use to fully track an entity of interest. With the vast amount of data already stored and with new entries made on a daily basis, a complete web is shown with specific reference points of any client dossier the system has created.
For the most part, this metadata is a benign aspect of this new information age. Although many see this as an egregious privacy violation and infringement on certain freedoms (which it is), most of these records will never see the light of day or even be accessed. There is so much data that even the most advanced systems in the world still need time to physically process the data and form a response to a specific query. The average person need not worry about direct bullying by Big Brother (yet).
On an even more positive note, when the dust settles and these systems are no longer in use for nefarious big government purposes, the technology may see new life in different applications. For example, software of this caliber with the ability to process petabytes of metadata daily can help the human race with logistical, planning and economic issues. Time will tell.