Everyone talks about Metadata and privacy issues. There has been so much scary talk about metadata, that Knut A. Technogeek woke up in a cold sweat from a terrible nightmare: NSA agents had thrown him into a pit of cyberspace, and he fell and fell and fell, passing all these bits and bytes of information that he could not grab hold of. He realized that he needed to learn more about metadata, if he wanted to avoid a repeat visit of the nightmare.
What Is Metadata?
Knut quickly learned that there is nothing inherently scary about metadata. He had worried that he might need to contact a Los Angeles computer repair expert. First off, the term metadata means “data about data.” He was relieved to learn that metadata in his communications did not actually reveal anything about the content of his communications. That discovery sent him hunting further information about how metadata developed and is used.
Metadata has been around for quite a long time, it turns out (although, not under that name). When libraries catalogue a new book or movie, they generate what are basically keyword terms to help people find the book by subject. Thus, a book about humpback whales would be given subject headings (as the keywords are called in libraries) of oceanography, mammals, sea creatures, biology, just to name a few possibilities. This metadata helps library patrons find related information about humpback whales.
When it comes to metadata in cyberspace, it takes the form of additional coding that identifies many factors of communications or web pages. For a web site, metadata includes the keywords for the specific webpage the data is attached to. It will also identify the domain the page belongs to, when the page was introduced to the internet, where the page is hosted. For email, the metadata will include the time the message was sent, the internet provider service that was used, the email address it was sent from and the one it was sent to, it can even identify the specific computer used and where that machine is located.
Knut learned that it was the latter types of information that the NSA was gathering: who was sending and receiving emails, the times and (in the case of phone calls) durations of the communications, the locations of sender and receiver. After some thought, he realized that could be useful information in the hunt for terrorists or criminals. It still unsettled him that government agencies could find out that much information, but it wasn’t going to give him nightmares any more.
Tags, Hashtags, and Labels
He also learned that metadata of other types were regularly used. Tags on blogs, hashtags, internet cookies on vendor websites are all types of metadata. This is a key element for the use of “targeted advertising” that he finds everywhere on the internet. He had wondered how the social media website ads knew which movies he had been seeing (he regularly searched for showtimes online, and sometimes purchased tickets in advance through a service). Maybe metadata wasn’t such a bad thing.
Clearing the Cache
It did occur to him that he ought to learn how to clear out some of the old clutter of metadata that got cached on his computer. He contacted an IT service to find out how his hard drive could be cleaned of unnecessary data and metadata. In very short order, he had become so comfortable with what metadata is and does that he was back to sleeping peacefully, free from metadata nightmares.
“Metadata Nightmare” (cartoon), by Sarah Beach, copyright 2014 by Sarah Beach, used by permission.