Metadata Surveillance: Hidden Trackers Are Everywhere

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How do you define metadata? What is a metadata example? How does metadata surveillance work? Are there laws that define metadata surveillance and its permissibility?

Metadata is information about how content is made. Metadata surveillance is a useful tool in mass surveillance.

Learn more about the metadata definition with metadata examples, as well as Ed Snowden’s concerns around metadata surveillance.

Metadata Definition: Where Does Metadata Come From?

Your devices are constantly and automatically creating and emitting metadata. If someone is surveilling you and has access to your metadata, they know your routines and where you are at all times. They can predict your behavior. (In theory. Using data to predict people’s behavior isn’t very accurate and is, in fact, more like manipulation. For example, the government might try to predict what you’ll do based on the pattern of what you’ve done, the same way a website might suggest a book you’d like because you’ve read a different book. This is less prediction and more like getting you to do an action you’re presented with.)

Metadata Example: Phone Call

If you make a phone call, the metadata is how long the call was, the time and date, the numbers on the call, and where the phones were at the time of the call. In terms of mass surveillance, metadata is more useful than exact transcripts of your phone calls because it helps the NSA narrow down whom to target.

Metadata Example: Email

For example, if you send an email to an organization that the NSA is interested in, they might become interested in you. Ironically, the law protects content more than metadata.

Metadata Surveillance Laws

The 2001 Patriot Act allowed the government to ask the FISA Court to force third parties to give them information on anything that could be considered “relevant” to terrorism or foreign intelligence. This was interpreted to mean the NSA could collect telephone metadata from American telecoms every day forever on the grounds that one day, some of that information might be “relevant.” 

In late 2012, laws about mass surveillance were under fire. Both the UK and Australian governments were proposing legislation about recording metadata. These laws were pitched as security measures. 

Edward Snowden and Metadata Surveillance Concerns

Ed and the NSA disagree on the treatment of metadata. Ed read the Constitution closely. The Fourth Amendment in particular resonated with him, because it covered privacy. Ed considers all data, including metadata, as “effects.” Phones, clouds, and computers are like our “homes” and Ed believes they should be given the same privacy protections.

Metadata Surveillance: Hidden Trackers Are Everywhere

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Permanent Record summary:

  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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