A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction

Metadata PaperSince the recent revelations of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of the public’s metadata, the term “metadata” has been regularly used in the media, frequently without any explanation of its meaning. Metadata’s reach can be extensive – including information that reveals the time and duration of a communication, the particular devices used, email addresses, or numbers contacted, which kinds of communications services were used, and at what geolocations. And since virtually every device we use has a unique identifying number, our communications and Internet activities may be linked and traced with relative ease – ultimately back to the individuals involved.

All this metadata is collected and retained by communications service providers for varying periods of time and, for legitimate business purposes. Key questions arise, however, including who else has access to all this information, and for what purposes? Senior U.S. government officials have been defending their sweeping and systemic seizure of the public’s personal communications on the basis that it is “only metadata.” They say it is neither sensitive nor privacy-invasive since it does not access any of the content contained in the associated communications.

A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction, explains that metadata can actually be more revealing than accessing the content of our communications. The paper aims to provide a clear understanding of metadata and disputes popular claims that the information being captured is neither sensitive, nor privacy-invasive, since it does not access any content. Given the implications for privacy and freedom, it is critical that we all question the dated, but ever-so prevalent either/or, zero-sum mindset to privacy vs. security. Instead, what is needed are proactive measures designed to provide for both security and privacy, in an accountable and transparent manner.

Media Coverage

Commissioner Cavoukian discussed the importance of metadata with Evan Solomon on CBC’s Power & Politics:


Commissioner’s Corner

What People Are Saying

The work that Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Office has done under the leadership of Ann Cavoukian over the past 15 years has placed Canada at the cutting edge of research and education on privacy protection issues. This, together with the work of Canada’s Federal Privacy Commissioner, has provided a much-needed foundation for citizens and organizations who seek to preserve the right to privacy in Canada. Though this right is steadily diminishing, it protects our precious freedoms to think, speak, gather together in common cause and maintain a private life away from the prying eyes of the state and information-hungry corporations.

Darrell Evans
Executive Director
Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies

I will send this out to my 1000+ SDSUG Members as well as put this information out on my AZSDSUG Group Page for my Groups members to share. I looked at the Video that Dr. Ann did and as usual, it was great information. Here in the United States, we are trying to be convinced that the zero sum mindset is that only way to go to have Security. They have never talked about Security and Privacy working separately but together to protect the individual’s information. I believe that the information Dr. Ann has provided, has come at an excellent time for the Security and Privacy Professionals of the world to take a closer look at what is real and what is not. As always, we always look forward to getting updated information on Privacy by Design and Security from Dr. Cavoukian.

Leo J. Hauguel
LJH Security Consulting Services

Me and my family would like to honor you and your courage to speak in behalf of freedom.  Merci.

Nick Watters
Président, Watters Martel

I admire your tackling of “thorny” issues that concern privacy. Your most recent comment on mass metadata collection is serious food for thought and I took the liberty of posting a reference to it on Linkedin [where many IT folk “reside”].

Chris Trinidad

Author:Ann Cavoukian, Ph.D., Information & Privacy Commissioner, Ontario, Canada
Date Published:July 17, 2013

Tags: , ,