Metadata is Powerful, and the NSA Knows It
If you follow digital rights groups today, you’ll see a lot of posts about one of our favorite topics of late — metadata. This week marks the first anniversary of the Necessary & Proportionate principles on mass surveillance, which WITNESS is proud to be signed onto, groups like EFF, Access, and APC are driving home the point that the information describing and accompanying your communications — that is, who you call or email, when, and from where, plus the subject line in the case of email — can say more about you than the actual content of your communications, and therefore it should be protected from mass surveillance. (Needless to say, the NSA disagrees.)
As part of that effort, we want to highlight a different aspect of the metadata conversation — how it can be a part of the answer for allowing citizen media to reach its full potential and why that won’t happen until we can better protect our data from prying eyes. We’ve covered the value of metadata in using media to deliver news and justice in previous posts and discussion.
Metadata in this case means the information associated with every piece of media you create — things like geotags, timestamps, names, dates, descriptions, and camera types, all of which tell us more about the provenance of a photo or video. That metadata can provide context, a means of verification, and a way to find the right content in a sea of visual media, making it much easier for everyone from social media followers to local news reporters to human rights courts to find video and trust what they’re seeing.That’s a huge potential boon to the use of video for news and justice purposes. (And something we plan on talking about at SXSW next year.)
But the NSA and other agencies have decided they should have free reign over your metadata, stretching an already overly permissive law and making it necessary for activists and journalists to think twice before providing the rich metadata that can make their media that much more powerful. At times they’ve also tried to downplay what can be gleaned from metadata, but the truth is this: the US government has conducted lethal drone strikes based on metadata, other governments around the world have used metadata to root out journalists’ sources, and people have been linked to each other or had their whereabouts leaked.
We believe in the power of what citizen witnesses can do with metadata, but we also know that we will never see it used for verification and discovery at a large scale until users can trust that they are in control of their own content. And that won’t be true in a world where mass surveillance is the norm, ISPs are required to keep your data on file, and even standard encryption is under assault from governments. Read more about metadata and mass surveillance at the Necessary & Proportionate site this week, and join the conversation at #privacyisaright.
Featured image: “DC Rally Against Mass Surveillance”, CC photo by Flickr user Susan Melkisethian