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Why the definition of “Metadata” matters to the NSA phone record collection

Last week the Guardian broke news that call data records or “telephony metadata” from American Verizon subscribers was being handed over to the NSA under secret FISA court orders. Many members of Congress and the Obama administration are claiming that this kind of metadata is not personal because the information being gathered is not the actual content of voice calls. According to the New York Times, Senator Saxby Chambliss from Georgia said, “It’s metadata only and it’s what we call minimized.”

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Call data records that mobile phones generate includes information ranging from location, time, length of transmission, and information about other phones a user may try to connect through a voice call or text message (for example their phone number or service provider). Call data records also include unique identifying information about users and their phones such as the Subscriber Identity Module (or SIM card) and the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IEMI) number for mobile handsets. Swaths of metadata are created each time you use your phone to connect to a mobile network and place a call, check your email, or send a text message. Metadata is a powerful concept that is being used in response to the National Security Agency collecting call data records to justify and defend this domestic surveillance program. Unfortunately, a diluted definition of metadata is being used to obviate the significance of what this data from mobile phones actually is and how this information being handed over to the federal government by mobile service providers is understood by Americans who use cell phones and create metadata everyday. Telephonic metadata is quickly becoming the most private information that we have because mobile phones are increasingly our primary communication tools, and the significance of these digital traces is being overlooked.

The formal definition of “metadata” in the field of Library and Information Science is “data about data”. This can be structural or descriptive information about content, but in general, metadata helps people find things in information systems. Historically, catalogs in libraries have been the most common instances of metadata. But in the information age, metadata is all around us. It is the information we need to describe, find and analyze information objects in the world. As metadata becomes a ubiquitous part of modern life, it becomes something that we encounter and create in everyday living. We need metadata for our bus routes, traffic lights, banking systems, e-mail, and health records.

Increasingly, metadata can be generated and gathered through small sensors in our environments, ranging from RFID chips in passports to turnstiles in parking garages. These sensors generate information, and data about that information can be deduced in powerful and expansive ways. How many people have passed through this checkpoint? How many cars are in this parking lot? How many trucks are on this freeway? One of the most ubiquitous forms of metadata that we can create as individuals is with our mobile phones. Currently, more than 85% of Americans carry phones, and the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that more than half those users carry smart phones, which generate more detailed call data records than feature phones. Like bank cards and drivers licenses, we carry our phones all day in public and in private places. Most users keep their mobile phones powered on all the time. But unlike bank cards, we do not have choices about what traces we can leave, how they are tracked, if we want to use these traces and now, since the USA Patriot Act, how these structural and descriptive metadata can be enrolled in domestic surveillance programs.

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When mobile phone users have control over the metadata that they collect and the share it, it’s called participatory sensing. Participatory sensing data from phones can be used by people for many good and empowering reasons and it relies on a faceted understanding of what data traces can be generated and how they relate to privacy. For example, there have been many participatory sensing projects at UCLA that give community members the opportunity to collect environmental data from their phones and make arguments about the neighborhoods around them, such as finding less congested bike routes to commute to work. When people use participatory sensing to generate and collect data about individual movements, location, and communication with their phones we find that they are concerned about confidentiality and security of their personal metadata.

The problem with the “data about data definition” that’s being used in defense of the NSA surveillance program is the difficulty of connecting telephonic metadata to the everyday uses of carrying a mobile phone that is almost always creating and generating digital traces. The way that metadata is currently being explained to the public and mobile subscribers in this debate denies the powerful kind of sensemaking that can happen when metadata gets enrolled in big data projects like domestic surveillance programs, or when the information about these data has to do with your movements, location, and primary communication contacts. Metadata from our phones that has been accumulated over time can tell personal things about actions with precision, for example how often we shop, when we go through the drive through for fast food, where we live, where our loved ones live, how and where we spend our nights and weekends.

Deploying sensemaking information from the metadata collected from thousands of mobile phone users can be very powerful. It can be even more powerful when it relies on a simplified understanding of metadata that overlooks the unique, personally identifying aspects of sensors in our lives, such as phones that broadcast our location or the duration of conversations between people. Accumulated metadata from mobile phones have possibilities that we are still discovering. It is important that we understand that the definition of metadata is not benign and that mobile telephonic metadata is unlike any other metadata that has ever come before because it is both personally descriptive and structural. We need to have a complex and comprehensive understanding of ownership over our call data records because they constitute expectations of privacy from both our mobile service providers and our government. By only calling it “metadata only” we diminish the value of our personal identifying information and the significance of the Obama administration’s domestic surveillance actions.

X-posted at HASTAC BTD blog