Communications Privacy Concept: Metadata

Posted on February 15, 2014
Tags: privacy metadata

Tim Lavoie

Communication is one of those fundamental human needs that is ingrained from birth. Countries espouse the freedom of expression and freedom of association, meaning that you should feel reasonably safe in meeting other people, and then proceeding to discuss topics of interest.

Reality gets more complicated, of course. While you are usually not prevented from chatting other people up, there are those who will take an interest in those connections you are observed in making. This can happen at many levels, depending at the level of personal involvement, and side effects social or otherwise. At a personal level, there may be those in your community, such as neighbours, who take an interest in what you do, or those with whom you associate, whether it affects them or not. Some insular religous groups have a practice known as shunning; essentially, someone who has violated their social code is now considered to be an outsider, and members are proscribed from communicating with them.

At a more aggregate level, social media companies such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn take extraordinary interest in your personal network. You have likely seen requests from them if you’re a member; a message will pop up, something like, “find more connections, click here!” What this is typically doing is asking you to submit credentials for some email account, so that they can rummage through your contacts to see who else you know is already on their system. They’ll probably want to invite the rest to sign up too, of course. This level of personal invasion would rarely be tolerated in the physical, present world; would you let someone take a photocopy of your pencil-smeared address book? Maybe an employer, or someone running a club you participate in? Maybe your ex from 20 years ago would like to sign up too! Whaddya think? Maybe she’ll help you out in the latest Facebook game app?

Sound good? I hope not, and encourage you to close these pop-up messages as soon as they appear. On the surface, all of them want to increase their membership, getting more eyeballs for the ads they host in the process. What you do for for email that your government likely keeps, others do in the walled garden environments they set up for you to chat with your friends.

When you see mention that someone is only keeping a certain level of association (say three hops) from a target of interest, what does that entail? Likely, it includes you. Sure, you aren’t a bad person, but the odds are good you are ensnared in somebody’s list of interest. Take Bad Guy A, we’ll assume that he’s a first class scumbag of the worst sort.You wouldn’t associate with him, would you? Of course not, you’re great! What about his buddies? Well, they associate with him. They are probably dodgy too. Or they cut his hair, or his lawn. Maybe they just phoned him once, or vice versa, by accident. In any case, that’s a 1-hop connection. So this guy is under investigation, and now someone is interested in anyone he’s ever called or emailed. Sure, that must be reasonable. But hey, your telco also knows where your phone goes. You knew that, right? As in, information about who’s nearby when something goes down could also be important. Here is one story where this sort of information was used to identify suspects, though one of the accused wants access to the same info to exonerate himself. Maybe he’s innocent, and caught up being one-hop connected to a bad guy? Now, if you take the bus with him, or he’s called you, or friended you on Facebook, that’s two hops from the baddie. Maybe it’s not a big deal today, but once there is attention paid to the baddie, taking the bus with someone who might have called him… suddenly seems important. You won’t know of course, until trying to explain that you have no idea who the guy is who shares a bus, and happens to cut the grass of a known criminal.

That, my friends, is metadata, which taxpayer-funded agencies desparately want, and equally want you to believe is not private information when it comes to sniffing emails, grabbing records of phone calls, or following cel phones around Canadian airports. Until you’re arrested, or happen to be in a place where drone strike are allowed against locations of somebody’s cel phones, or stuck on a no-fly list. I suggest though, that you should care, today. Right now.