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[liberationtech] Why Metadata Matters

David Golumbia dgolumbia at
Thu Jun 6 11:44:31 PDT 2013

while it is literally true that the data accessed by the NSA is formally
metadata--that is, informational data about the calls rather than the
conversations themselves--the distinction is becoming more and more
obfuscatory. The whole direction of so-called "big data" analytics is to
"see through" the metadata into what would, until very recently, have been
understood as "data." metadata today is both far more informationally rich,
and far more analytically useful, than the data/metadata distinction

On Thu, Jun 6, 2013 at 1:44 PM, Griffin Boyce <griffinboyce at>wrote:

>   I see a lot of people wondering why metadata matters.  "But they
> don't know *what* you're doing there!"  So I'll give a short example
> to illustrate how metadata can be used to not only determine who
> someone is talking to, but also to invade their privacy and uncover
> the most intimate details of their life.
>   Jane is at 16th & L Street for an hour.
>   Carla is at 16th & L Street for four hours. She's had a short visit
> previously.
>   James is at 16th & L Street for twenty minutes. He comes back at the
> same time every week.
>   Kris is at 16th & L Street for ten hours.
>   Rick is at 16th & L Street for eight hours every night.
>   Samantha has been there for three days and four hours.
> 16th & L Street is the address of a Planned Parenthood in Washington, DC.
>   Jane is having a physical.
>   Carla is having an abortion.
>   James receives his medication there. By visit time, location, and
> frequency, he is likely a trans guy. If his appointments were every
> two weeks, the metadata would indicate that James is a trans woman.
>   Kris is protesting there.
>   Rick works in an office in the same building.
>   Samantha dropped her phone in the Farragut West Metro Station and
> has been looking for it ever since.
> And that's just location data. If one calls a physician every day,
> perhaps they have a major medical problem. If a crime happens on the
> other side of town, and you suddenly start calling attorneys... did
> you do it?  There are numerous explanations for either of those
> scenarios, but this kind of metadata in isolation can be used to tell
> almost any story you want.
> Stay safe out there.
> best,
> Griffin Boyce
> --
> Technical Program Associate, Open Technology Institute
> #Foucault / PGP: 0xAE792C97 / OTR: saint at
> --
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David Golumbia
dgolumbia at
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