The Metadata Contest

A paint silhouette, showing the sides of two faces by having sprayed white paint around them onto black paper.

Chris Duckett in ZDnet Australia today on attorney general George Brandis and his liquidity under pressure from Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlam.  Ludlam was asking about metadata, on which more in a moment.  From the article;

"I, myself, on the basis of having been informed by the evidence of those several witnesses during the course of the last parliament thought that the Prime Minister's description of metadata as 'essentially billing details' was a perfectly accurate shorthand description of what is a contestable concept," the Attorney-General said.

This is quite true and the attorney general is quite brilliant for pointing it out, metadata is a contestable concept.  

Let's back up a little.

For the unfamiliar, metadata is a neologism that sprung up in conjunction with surveillance discussions over the past twelve months which was wielded by intelligence communities as a sort of tool to separate aspects of surveillance that were certain to upset people (like the government knowing what you said on the Internet), with natural peripheral facts about the surveillance that it was hoped wouldn't upset people - at least not quite so much (like the government not knowing what you said but knowing you spoke to someone and the time at which you did).

Of course the reality is obvious; metadata is just data and is just as useful in surveillance, if not more so. If my wife reviews my mobile phone and notes that I ring a woman who I met at work several times a day including after hours, sometimes for up to an hour, but I have no professional explanation for the communication, then there is certainly plenty for her to investigate without knowing the content of the communications. If (assuming I'm exonerated somehow) I demand privacy using the Internet in the week leading up to my wife's birthday or Christmas it's not necessary to review my browsing history to know what I am up to, I'm probably shopping for gifts The entire discussion of metadata is reminiscent of paint spray silhouettes; what isn't pictured is detailed by what is.

The time and place that communication takes place, the circumstances that surround it, the consequential facts produced alongside the content of a particular private discussion are at least as pertinent to the matter as the contents of a discussion itself, in fact they define it. In characterising metadata as different and the shareware or diet version of actual private information, the intelligence and law enforcement communities have shifted the Overton Window to distract us. They will still seek warrants for information that is inconsequential anyway if we don't get upset about what they have done.

Metadata is not only contestable, it's supremely malleable and fungible because it's actually pure fiction. Metadata is data, the most important bits.


Image:  Mr Timney