Commentary – Calling It ‘Metadata’ Doesn’t Make Surveillance Less Intrusive

beSpacific 2013-06-24

By Geoff Nunberg:  “Metadata” was bound to break out sooner or later, riding the wave of “data” in all its forms and combinations. “Big data” and “data mining” are the reigning tech buzzwords these days, and university faculties are scrambling to meet the surge in demand for courses in the hot new field of data science. It’s as if “data” is usurping “information” as a byword. Up to now, “data” has played a supporting role in the information age. There’s a popular definition of data as the raw material that becomes information when it’s processed and made meaningful. That puts information at the center of the modern tech world, but it isn’t how anybody actually uses the two words…But the shift in focus from information to data reflects a genuine difference between the two. “Information” brings to mind the knowledge that’s gathered in libraries, encyclopedias, newspapers and journals — stuff that has an independent existence in the world. “Data” is always connected to particular things and events. It comes from experiments, sensors, official records. Or it’s the scuff marks we leave behind as we click on websites, make calls, go through the E-ZPass tollbooths, visit an ATM. It’s all out there, accumulating in ginormabytes, overflowing the server farms…Whether or not you think the government should be sweeping this stuff up, calling it metadata doesn’t make the process any less intrusive. Tell me where you’ve been and who you’ve been talking to, and I’ll tell you about your politics, your health, your sexual orientation, your finances. Why don’t we just let the word “metadata” sink back into the nerdy cubicles it came from? When it comes to privacy, the “meta-” doesn’t matter. In the post-information age, it’s just data all the way down.”

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