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Metadata is information generated as you use technology, and its use has been the subject of controversy since NSA’s secret surveillance program was revealed. Examples include the date and time you called somebody or the location from which you last accessed your email. The data collected generally does not contain personal or content-specific details, but rather transactional information about the user, the device and activities taking place. In some cases you can limit the information that is collected – by turning off location services on your cell phone for instance – but many times you cannot.
Only last week, John Miller, CBS News Senior Correspondent was asked what the FBI might want with Verizon call data. In his answer, Miller used the term metadata, something well understood by those in data processing, if largely incomprehensible to nearly everyone else.
Looking For Specks In The Chicken Shit
Looking through tons of data in search of patterns, timeliness, relationships, or something else concealed in large data sets — and not easily recognized or culled-out by human examination.
Miller answered the question correctly by explaining metadata is data about data, which is technically correct, which is not to say that it be either clear or expository.
Newsroom Magazine began development of a content-oriented metrics system in 2009.
Since 2011, our Tracker CMS Metrics facilities have resided on an independent server system not visible from the Internet.
That same year, Todd Blank, the visionary architect of Newsroom Magazine’s virtual hosting facilities, spoke of his interest in the fast expanding world of metadata analytical tools.
Two years later, our Tracker systems are metadata oriented and detail rich.
What we learned during the transition may be useful for those wanting to know what John Miller meant by data about data, and why the FBI thought Verizon’s immense call records data might be of use in its efforts to thwart terrorist attacks on the homeland.
There is a clearer way to think about the relationship between ordinary data records ( microdata ) and data pattern analysis ( metadata ). To make the concepts easier to grasp, consider the world’s most familiar data set — a telephone directory.
The Washington telephone book is a data set in the sense that the information on its many pages is a definable group — D.C. area telephone subscribers. For those over the age of thirty, the D.C. telephone book was printed — a static data set that was updated yearly.
When data-processing systems came into being the telephone directory data set was manually entered into its electronic equivalent — a database.
The whole phone book, whether printed, or electronic comprised a single data set — a collection of microdata records, as for example telephone subscriber names, addresses and telephone numbers.
Each data element, known as a record, comprised the micro-data — subscriber name, address and telephone number
Unlike the print version, the electronic subscriber database constantly changed as new numbers were added, or when people moved to another address, or when subscribers were disconnected from the system.
To better manage the telephone subscriber database, the telephone company kept track of every change — just as your bank does with every check, debit or credit. The log of changes is chock-full of information about time, nature of change, and the details. In the days of printed directories, the paper change log held hostage data about the subscriber data activities — or what John Miller called data about data.
The work that kept the electronic database up-to-date created a second data set — the record of the change events. If one added up all the telephone directory changes for a year the resulting number, say 78,000 in 1992, wasn’t about phone numbers, but about data events — i.e. data about data ( metadata ).
Today telephone companies sill keep records of subscribers — as well as call detail about every connection, incoming and outgoing, 24 hours a day in separate data set(s) organized by exchange, community, or cell tower.
What the FBI demanded in the FISC court order is access to all prior, existing, or subsequently collected call information — hundreds of millions, possibly billions of records. The data may have been sent to the FBI electronically, or made searchable by the FBI on Verizon’s computers. Either way, the call data collected over a certain time-span could be scanned for its meta data content.
One of the metadata studies mentioned in media coverage of the Verizon database has been to identify patterns in calling and receiving numbers to and from phones outside the U.S.
Each time the a metadata examination of a database is studied, the results usually suggest other ways of asking the questions, or areas of interest, or need to better focus on what’s most promising. No matter how deeply the original data is studied, the privacy of the original data remains firmly in place — except for those whose pattern of conduct or calling history stands out sufficiently to warrant additional investigation.
At that point, with telephone numbers in hand, what was originally anonymous micro data can easily become a privacy risk.
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