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The morality of metadata: not just innocuous adornment

Now widely collected by intelligence agencies and private companies, and often seen as trivial, metadata should be an important part of privacy. TK Link

The Snowden leaks may have highlighted the extent of state surveillance on its citizens, but debate continues about the significance of the kind of data collected.

In many cases, that’s metadata, and while it could simply be labelled “data about other data”, and seen as innocuous, it isn’t. And we need to treat it in a way similar to how other private information ought to be treated.

But what is metadata? Professor Luciano Floridi, a philosopher of information, says metadata is descriptions of the nature of the primary data, “such as location, format … availability … and so forth.”

For instance, consider a phone conversation between two people. The primary data here is the content of the phone call, while the metadata is data about the phone call, things like the time, location, duration and people in the call.

The important question is whether the collection of such data is justified. Sitting underneath this question is the issue of whether metadata is morally important.

The moral importance of data on data

What are the reasons that metadata would be morally important?

Firstly, does metadata have an intrinsic value – is it a form of information that is something important in-and-of itself? For instance, is it comparably intimate to information we consider typically private?

While a small section of metadata is not problematic, combine different forms of metadata and a highly revealing set of information can emerge.

If John calls Jane once, this might mean very little. Imagine that John calls Jane and then Jane calls Jim and Jim commits a crime. And if this was to happen every time Jim commits a crime, we might consider that John could be involved in Jim’s crimes.

Secondly, we need to ask if metadata is instrumentally valued – can it be used in ways that impacts on something morally important? For instance, could its misuse produce a decline in people’s freedom? The use of meta-data to track down political dissidents is one example where metadata, combined with other information, has been used for morally bad purposes by governments.

Given that metadata is used in surveillance and by private companies, there is an assumption that it is not morally important.

Two possible explanations for this position are that what’s important is what is private, and metadata is not private, therefore not important.

The metadata arises through shared relations between people and a possible third party, so it is not secret. If it is not secret, it is no longer private. This claim is wrong, however. It rests on a certain conception of privacy as secrecy, which is just one way to think of privacy.

A second possible reason is that because the content of meta-data is innocuous, it cannot be intimate, so should not be considered private. But this claim is also wrong.

What is of interest is not just a simply that John called Jane, but that John called Jane at a given time, that Jane called Jim, and this happened multiple times prior to Jim committing a crime. We need to recognise that the metadata is collected, aggregated and analysed, and following this processing, the metadata produces useful information.

The very collection and use of metadata indicates that its users consider it valuable for some end. What’s relevant here is that this “new” information, the result of analysis and processing, is intended to be revealing and its uses can be harmful.

Why is metadata considered innocuous?

For many it seems that metadata is morally important, and ought to be treated as private. So how is it that its use has been relatively uncontroversial until recently?

One historical explanation is that in the past it was hard to collect, hard to aggregate and analyse and hard to put to use. In East Germany, for instance, the secret police did collect metadata, but it was by hand and required a massive police state.

Given the rise of information technologies, there is not only much more metadata around, but it is now much easier to collect and use. Perhaps, given the practical limits on its use in the past there is a policy vacuum, where the legal and social norms around meta-data are not keeping pace with the technology and social practices.

The important point is that metadata is morally important, it carries some moral weight. If there are situations where its production and use are considered there have to be important reasons given to justify that use. Further, if it is used, such use needs due care and respect.

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