Anti-Buzz: Metadata

by Andrew Emmott on November 16, 2013

in Anti-Buzz,Future Tech

In case you missed it: This Antibuzz was first publiched in July:

The Buzz: Data
The Anti-Buzz: Meta

So we got a new buzzword while I was gone: Metadata. Here are two links to get you up to speed if you don’t know what I’m talking about. It might be fair to call “metadata” an anti-buzz word for two reasons: 1) it was thrown at the public as sort of a panacea: Your data was not being analyzed, your metadata was and 2) unlike typical buzzwords, the popular usage is applied more narrowly than is accurate, as if it pertains mostly to a more polite variant of spying.

What is metadata?

It’s data about something. The more common example is what you find in a library catalog. You have an item, a book, and the contents of that book is the data. Information such as, title, author, publisher, publication date, ISBN number, number of pages, genre, catalog number and so on and so on, that is the metadata. The contents of your phone calls, they are the data. Information such as who called who, and when and for how long, that’s metadata. In the case of phone calls, the distinction between the two is severe, even if the collection of the latter still bothers you. But here are other things that could rightly be considered metadata:

  • Electronic transaction details
  • Bank statements
  • Credit history
  • University transcripts
  • Criminal records
  • Patient records
  • Patient records
  • Patient records

The service you provide your customers is the “data” that you record metadata about. Who came to you, for what, how much they paid, what they paid with, what you used to solve their problem, and so on. The net effect of using computers to facilitate everything we do is that we keep metadata describing everything.

Why the outrage?

The public outcry over the NSA’s PRISM program, no matter how justified, is an outcry of shock. Coming to the realization that most everything you do is becoming increasingly well documented is shocking. The infrastructure has been there for some years now; the PRISM scandal only brings it to the attention of the public.

If there is one strong political position I will advocate here, it’s that we all should calm down. Metadata about ourselves, who owns it, what the government wants with it, what you want with it, and what other people want with it, are all serious issues. I’m not deflecting those issues. I am suggesting that as private citizens we are more in shock than anything, and we won’t address these issues in an intelligent way if we react in anger.

The analogy I’ve made before is that the issue of privacy is the private citizen’s Napster scare. Much as digital distribution has disrupted common business practices and left masters of the old ways shaking an angry fist, the way computing technology has impacted our privacy and our social lives is similarly disrupting the average person’s day-to-day, and leaving masters of the old practices enraged and in the dust. The sort of person who is uncompromisingly dedicated to the preservation of 20th century privacy is little wiser than an entertainment industry that wanted to demolish all possibility of their works ever being digitally distributed. It’s an over-reaction, fueled by an emotional attachment to the way-things-have-always-worked, and dangerously ignores the potential benefits of the new technology.

What can be done with metadata?

The future benefits of all this meticulous record keeping lie in datamining. This does include an improved capacity for the US government to track down terrorists and criminals, and yes, they are going to sort through our phone records and emails to do it. This 1984-esque scenario does not sit well with many people. It would probably sit better with you if I suggested that in the future, people like Ariel Castro will be caught much sooner. It would probably sit better with you if I suggested that medical diagnosis and treatments will be greatly improved because we will effectively combine the experience of every doctor at once. It would probably sit better with you if I suggested that cancer might be cured by mining the human genome – provided enough people put their DNA on public record. The value of retaining your privacy will be at odds with great public good, in ways I don’t think any of us understand yet, but it would be hasty to shut out the possibilities.

An important characteristic of datamining is that it is looking for big-picture patterns. Making human-sense out of your private data is not something a machine can do. Even if machines were blitzing through your actual phone calls, they would not be “listening” in any meaningful sense. People who want your data aren’t interested in you, they are interested in everyone. The question we ask is, “what does everyone, together, look like?” Big data naturally anonymizes. I understand this does not comfort everyone, but it is true enough – the only thing intelligent enough to abuse your privacy is another human being. To invert Abraham Lincoln, you can’t spy on all of the people all of the time.

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