Metadata and the Great Privacy Debate

Metadata and the Great Privacy Debate

April 3

Outside of its value to SEO campaigns, metadata was always something I personally looked at as an afterthought. That’s until I realized just how revealing it can be. Metadata is created every time you strike a pose to snap a selfie. Each time you create and edit a file in a program like Microsoft Word. Visit a web page online. Metadata can be created in a wide variety of ways, across a broad range of mediums, but what you really need to be concerned about is what it says about you.

Here are some quick examples that show where metadata is created and what it reveals:

Mobile Phone Calls

  • Phone numbers of each party
  • Time phone calls were placed
  • Duration of phone calls
  • Serial numbers of both phones involved in the call
  • Location of both parties on the line

Email Communications

  • Name, email address, and IP address of the sender
  • Name and email address of the recipient
  • Email subject line
  • Unique identifier of sent emails and related messages
  • Login records and IP address of mail client used 

Social Media

  •  Username
  •  Profile information (birth date, hometown, interests, etc.)
  •  Date and time of posts
  •  Current device
  •  Current location

Revealing Research on Metadata

From hard drive names to company-specific data, metadata often says a mouthful about the topic at hand. Because its purpose is to summarize specific sets of data, it can be useful in finding, organizing, and managing various types of content. However, those same details can put your privacy at risk if they fell into the wrong hands. It has to be a little unsettling to know that so many basic everyday actions can generate such revealing information about you. Even more concerning is the fact that metadata can be exposed with simple, publicly accessible software.

Speaking of software, one program played a pivotal role in helping researchers get a better understanding of what exactly lies behind metadata. In a recent study, Stanford University convinced 546 Facebook users to install the MetaPhone app on their Android phones. This app is reportedly designed to collect the same metadata gathered by telecommunications companies and government agencies – the same information at the heart of the NSA phone records controversy.

By accessing metadata associated with the participants’ texts and phone calls, MetaPhone was able to help researchers uncover some very specific and sensitive details. One participant made several calls to a gun shop to inquire about semiautomatic rifles. Another participant called a home improvement store, a couple of locksmiths, a hydroponics store and a head shop, which on the surface, sounds like information law enforcement officials might find interesting. Then there was at least one participant who called a strip club. I’m going on the record to state that I did not participate in this study.

A Word From the President on Metadata

Photo Credit: BeckyF via Flickr

Photo Credit: BeckyF via Flickr


On what could be a bright side depending on your faith in politics, metadata privacy relief may be on the way. In a recent press release, President Obama said that he has decided that the government will not collect or store the controversial bulk metadata connected to phone records. Instead, the telecommunications companies will continue to hold on to it until the government needs it. More importantly, any requests for this data must be approved by a judge who deems the information vital to national security. The President has put the Department of Justice in charge of making sure the modifications are implemented into the existing bulk metadata program.

So should you be worried about metadata and how it affects your privacy? I don’t know about worried. Living in fear isn’t living at all. However, you should certainly be aware. Be aware that metadata may contain sensitive information, and take the necessary precautions to keep that information protected. Although there isn’t much you can do to keep Big Brother at bay, it possible to reduce the potentially sensitive information you make available. This Microsoft article explains how you can erase the unwanted metadata connected to your files in Windows 7.

In today’s digital world, the line between publicly accessible information and what we believe to be private is too thin for comfort. A combination of sound data security practices and being conscious of the information that may be exposed when using platforms like email, mobile devices, and social media is currently the best way to approach the metadata dilemma. Hopefully privacy laws catch up with technology and provide an added peace of mind in the very near future.

Top Photo Credit: Josh Hallet via Flickr