Metadata and Privacy

By now, I hope, no Irreal reader believes the “it's just metadata” mantra from the nosey Parkers intent on snooping into every aspect of our lives. A recent study from Stanford quantifies the privacy-stripping power of metadata (you can read the study itself at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website).

The study shows that with a very small set of telephone metadata it is possible to identify the participants from publicly available records. The researchers also demonstrate that they could accurately infer when a subject was in a relationship and then (trivially) identify who the other person in the relationship was.

They were also able to correctly infer that one of the participants had a specific heart disease and that another owned a semiautomatic rifle. Read the report to see the wide range of sensitive data that can be teased from metadata.

Actually, all you need to know about metadata is what former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden famously said about it: “We kill people based on metadata.” Remember that the next time you hear your Aunt Millie or one of the nannies say, “It's just metadata.”

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