Metadata is powerful content


Who would have thought that in one week we would actually see the term metadata enter the mainstream lexicon, but that's what happened when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden blew the lid off of a secret FISA court order that enables the NSA to mine all of the metadata related to phone calls from a division of Verizon (NYSE: VZ).

Politicians quickly rushed to defend the practice. As Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told the Washington Post about the content that the NSA is collecting, "It is simply what we call metadata (emphasis added) that is never utilized by any governmental agency unless they go back to the FISA court and show that there's real cause as to why something within the metadata should be looked at."

Suddenly, we were all talking about metadata and of course most people using the term, including Senator Chambliss, very likely had very little understanding of what it meant. If he had, he would have recognized that metadata very obviously has value, otherwise why would the NSA be so hot for it? He would also recognize that metadata is in itself content. 

In fact, Lee Dallas does an excellent job explaining the importance of metadata in his Big Men on Content post: "It Is More Than Metadata--The Meaning Behind The Mining." As Dallas writes on the power of metadata, "First it allows for classification of information it describes. This classification makes possible the filtering of information that is not interesting to the analyst." He adds, "The second power is that it makes possible identifying relationships between information that you would otherwise not see as connected."

So just what is metadata? For my purposes, it's data about the content.

And the latter is very powerful indeed. As Susan Landau, author of "Surveillance or Security?" told The New Yorker speaking on metadata. ""It's much more intrusive than content." She explained that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying "who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening--you don't need the content."

So just what is metadata? For my purposes, it's data about the content. A good example is when you take a picture. I noticed the other day, for instance, that when I post a picture to Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Plus, it pulls a bunch of metadata about the picture from my phone camera, as you can see in the picture below:

Some of this tells you nothing about me personally, like the camera's focal length and f-stop settings, but other things like the phone type and the location do reveal a few key details about me and when I took the picture. True, it doesn't say anything about what the picture is or who I am, but if you throw in some keywords, which is often normal metadata around a picture, you could at the very least put me in a certain location, using a particular type of phone and taking a picture of something to do with cats in Connecticut (assuming the keywords revealed that). And if the government is monitoring the social network where I posted the picture, as other revelations last week suggested around the PRISM program, they can put it all together anyway.

Regardless, clearly metadata is highly useful content. In fact, metadata is considered such an important feature to content management industry analysts that they continually bring that up as a missing piece in cloud services like Box. Why? Because in an industry with so much content, metadata helps make sense of it.

It's certainly an easy bit of semantic shenanigans for politicians like Senator Chambliss to defend these practices by dismissing the data collection the NSA is doing as "just metadata." Technically, it's correct, but the fact remains that metadata is powerful content, or why bother collecting it at all? - Ron