The Meta Question

From The Nation:

What is the NSA doing with your metadata?

Jaron Lanier
June 12, 2013

Ever since we learned about PRISM, the NSA’s secret project to collect metadata on everyone by tapping into commercial online services, we’ve been confounded by a tangle of intangible clashing values. We are asked to balance “preventing terrorism” against “protecting privacy.” It is hard to demonstrate what terrorism would have occurred without preventative measures, and privacy is as much a feeling as a circumstance.A hypothetical versus an emotion: the invisibles clash at the coliseum. There is a danger that this crucial controversy is being framed in so blurry a manner that it will blend into the wind and blow away. Maybe reflecting on the terms will bring the situation into focus.


Metadata systems are said to gather only tags and skeletal information, but not “content.” The distinction is instrumental rather than substantial. The line between the two can shift over time. When someone retweets to a group of people, that generates only metadata and no data. In that case, which is a common one, the distinction becomes meaningless.
Metadata is the aspect of data that programs can most reliably “understand.” It’s the topical stuff that is regimented into a standard structure, like the blanks filled in on a form. In order to treat real-world events as metadata, certain actions of people, rather than their expressions, are used to fill in those blanks. For instance, programs cannot understand the meaning of ordinary conversation, but a program can log when a call is made, and to whom.


What we mean these days when we talk about security is preventing terrorist attacks. I was close by on 9/11, so I understand, though I wonder if we’ve become too narrow in our sensibility. Nonetheless, keeping to our nation’s narrowed sensibility, what can metadata do to prevent attacks?

I have no direct knowledge of PRISM, so I can only assume that what has been leaked about it is accurate. If this is so, then PRISM is probably like the many other metadata systems I have known in other spheres. In commerce, where there is at least as much talent and money as in the intelligence game, metadata’s primary strength is not investigative.

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