What is Meta Data?

The issue is Meta Data but what is it? How do we use it and how long have we had it?

Curiously our politicians, who want to introduce legislation to control it, appear to be unable to define what they mean by that term.

If we research the meaning we find that ‘metadata’ are data about data. A description of who has produced them, when, what format the data are in and so on. In a database, a simple example would be a spreadsheet; metadata are also data about data stored in a data dictionary and describes information about database tables such as the table name, table owner, details about columns and so on. Just like the description of the table formed by our common spreadsheet.

In web site terminology we have more than thirty common sets of metadata. Some are actually mandatory for web functionality and hence design. The place holder for such data is a code tag with the word meta to identify it. One, for instance, holds the title of a particular page of your web site which is visible in the search bar of the browser; another contains the description which is also displayed by search engines under the link presented to you. This gives you a rough idea what that linked page is all about.

This collection of data has been around since day one. If you inspect your web server’s log for your site you will find how many “hits” you had on each page, the visitors country, region and server address, the time of visit and length of stay on each page and the search term used to find your site. Your own IP address, operating system and browser details are transmitted as the norm each time you log onto the Internet. Indeed, if such code were not used to detect your browser, or possibly the operating you were using your webmaster could not produce most of the designs we see these days. Additional information is or can be gleaned but is usually not displayed by web servers. Your browsing history is also recorded but not normally displayed.

Much data is also stored about you and your activities by search engines as I wrote about in What does Google know about you? With the advent of mobile devices and Internet telephony known as VOIP a veritable mountain of additional data is gleaned. Your movements are now exposed by, first the communications towers that relay your call or just the physical presence of your phone. Activate the GPS on your phone and you are tracked with meter accuracy where ever you go. Your phone number, operating system, phone ID, phone calls and time logs are all recorded. The syncing of devices such as mobile phone, tablet and computer files builds up another mountain of information. Similarly, your SMS messages and contacts are also stored.

All this information has been lying around for as many years as the particular technology has existed. As privacy laws started to be formed and become specific this data was made available to authorised third parties. Such third parties were police and security agencies for example. They did, and still do, require court approval to access this information.

Of concern to me have been the free services to connect phones for normal conversations. You can avail yourself of a large number of these aps. That type of service is quite similar to VOIP that is widely used but a few of the free telephony services have also stored a copy of your actual call. That is of course in addition to who you called, the length of the call and the time it occurred that is collected by all phone companies so that they can write out bills for you to pay.

The storage of the actual call content did and still does concern me as it does the ISPs who have published their views on the matter.

One of the more popular free call providers has just recently advised that the actual call content is no longer stored by them and is in fact deleted at the end of the call. What they do however is to copy details from your contact list in order to service their own features. That means that they can and do compare your contacts with those of others and list contact details of people who are common to both. In other words they will notify you the moment Aunt Maud also connects to their service. In the mean time they have both your and now Aunt Maud’s list of contacts complete with photos if your system operates with such a feature.

The old argument is that if you have not done anything wrong you have nothing to hide and hence nothing to fear. That is true in one sense but to me it is akin to wearing clothes. As a dare, I may be willing to publicly disrobe completely but I do prefer to keep some aspects of my magnificent physique private; for no other reason than not wanting to share or expose some aspects of myself. Call it decorum if you like. And that is the analogy that also servers to explain why I may not want to have the content of my phone call available without redaction.

What concerns the industry is the sheer magnitude of the data that must be stored and kept for a yet undefined period but nevertheless spanning years. Technically there are no particular impediments but the financial impact would be high in anyone’s language. No clear costing has yet been put forward although figures of between $500 and $700 million annually have been spoken about. One does not have to be a mathematical genius to suggest that a consumer cost up to several hundred dollars is not far fetched. And I offer no prizes for guessing who would pay for this.

Personally I cannot see the benefit of keeping years worth of data of Aunt Maud’s gossiping just in case she robs a bank at the onset of her dementia. At the same time I have no objection for such records to be kept if persons are of a particular ilk which poses issues for the community at large.
Be all that as it may, I would much prefer to keep my clothes on and avoid unwarranted and unsustainable costs.

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