Yesterday the UK government announced an “emergency surveillance law“, to force internet and phone companies to retain the records of all customers emails, phone calls, and online activity.
The retained information, David Cameron was clear to point out, is not the content of these communications, only the metadata – the data about the data. The “who”, “when” and “where”, but not necessarily the “why” or the “what”.
Metadata might include dates, times, locations, and names of those involved in a communication, but not the actual conversation itself. Which is why, it is argued, it can be retained while still respecting the privacy of the citizens monitored.
After all, it’s just metadata.
But metadata matters. Metadata is context. And just as you can understand content without context, you can also read context without content too. If you have the right tools, it can tell you a lot. As this slide from the Electronic Frontier Foundation illustrates.
The European Court of Justice has ruled that mass metadata storage is an invasion of privacy.
Micheal Hayden – ex-director of the NSA/CIA – a man one would expect to know quite a lot about these things, might agree. He said recently:
“Metadata alone can provide an extremely detailed picture of a person’s most intimate associations and interests, and it’s actually much easier as a technological matter to search huge amounts of metadata than to listen to millions of phone calls. As NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker has said, ‘metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.'”
He goes on to say…
“We kill people based on metadata”