The word “metadata” has been popping up in the news a lot lately, thanks to the revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency has been collecting it from millions of Americans for years. And this is no flash-in-the-pan political scandal that will be forgotten next year; as our ultra-connected, electronic future continues to emerge, we’ll be wrestling with privacy and data issues
But what exactly is metadata? And why should you care if anyone has it?
Briefly, metadata is all the information contained in a phone call or an email except the content. This includes the sender, recipient, time, and location, among other things. Many Americans were relieved to find out that the NSA was not directly listening to their conversations or reading their email (at least as far as we know). But that reaction is a bit premature, because it turns out that mining enough metadata can reveal an awful lot about you anyway.
To find out just how much, I checked out a fascinating new project, called “Immersion“, from the smart people at MIT’s Media Lab.
The service dives into your Gmail account and, while ignoring the content of your emails, uses your metadata to paint a diagram of your contact network (unlike the NSA, Immersion asks you for permission first). Everything about it, including the arrangement and the colors, is automatically generated by the software.
To be clear, the diagram is only illustrating a portion of your metadata (your email) and even then it’s only looking at one specific field (sender/recipient). It’s incredible how much even this limited dataset can reveal about your life, and you can imagine how much more detailed it could be if it included location data as well, to say nothing of your phone records.
This project just went live a few days ago, and as you might guess, it’s seeing a lot of traffic. So much so that, as of this writing, I was still on the waiting list to access it. But NPR’s Jacob Goldstein relates his experience with it (and shares the picture above) in this Planet Money post, which you should check out.
Whatever your feelings on national security or electronic privacy, it’s safe to say that the first step to managing your data is being aware of it, and Immersion is a great step in the right direction.
Try it yourself at https://immersion.media.mit.edu/. Did it reveal anything about your life? And would you care whether anyone else could access the same information? Why or why not?