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Metadata = Surveillance

Security expert Bruce Schneier discusses metadata, a term poorly understood by both politicians and the public.

But what is metadata? Using a telephone as one example—

Metadata is who you call and when and how often, how long, where you and that person were located, which phone and carrier were used, where you (your phone) is at all times even when not calling, etc.

The actual phone call (voice recording) is plain “data”. So with bromides like “the NSA does not listen to your phone calls”, recognize the grotesquely dishonest evasion that it is, because it sidesteps the really juicy stuff, the chilling Orwellian stuff: metadata is the core requirement for real-time surveillance of everyone with everyone and everything all the time.

But maybe metadata is only tip of the iceberg.

Metadata is commonly thought of as less important than data content. But in fact metadata is vastly more powerful because it connects the dots in Orwellian ways never before possible. You know this in your gut: how does it feel to be tracked online as to your habits? Not many people like that idea. But now extend it to every aspect of your life and every interaction with everyone and everything and every service and site all the time 24 X 7.

With metadata, everyone is a dot on a networking map. The idea that such power cannot and will not be abused is one only naive children could believe in, right up there with the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Or perhaps the Supreme Court, seemingly unable to come to grips with the 4th Amendment having any meaning at all in a modern world—concretized thinkers unable to comprehend (or perhaps uwilling to confront) the dire risks or metadata—horse and buggy legal reasoning rather than conceptual thought (after all, a cell phone or computer is not “paper”).

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. — 4th Amendment.

Locating cell phones precisely was mandated by government edict; it is is required. For “public safety reasons”. Today, your cell phone is the most powerful tracking device ever invented: it gives a continual precise location. And you carry it willingly and without fail. And yet metadata is largely dismissed as a concern.

The issue is the massive surveillance machinery being put into place and what if any legal mechanisms will restrain it (ideally, dismantle it), because once in place the temptation for its use will be too great, needing only a plausible excuse to employ for more and more “reasonable” uses.


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