Monday, March 09, 2020

Permanent Record

I have just read Edward Snowden’s book called Permanent Record (McMillian 2019). It is a disturbing account of how the CIA and the NSA collected the data of Americans (and the people of the world) although they knew it was unconstitutional. They then lied to the media, so the public would not know about it.

Public servants with power can be dangerous, because they slip into assuming that they know what is good for people, better than they know themselves. It then become easy to slip into to doing evil assuming that it serves a greater good.

Snowden explains the significance of the collection of metadata.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that the content of our communications is rarely as revealing as its other elements—the unwritten, unspoken information that can expose the broader context and patterns of behaviour.

The NSA calls this “metadata.” The term’s prefix, “meta” which traditionally is translated as “above” or “beyond,” is here used in the sense of “about”: metadata is data about data. It is, more accurately, data that is made by data—a cluster of tags and markers that allow data to be useful. The most direct way of thinking about metadata, however; is as “activity data,” all the records of all the things you do on your devices and all the things your devices do on their own. Take a phone call, for example: its metadata might include the date and time of the call, the call’s duration, the number from which the call was made, the number being called, and their locations. An email’s metadata might include information about what type of computer it was generated on, where, and when, who the computer belonged to, who sent the email, who received it, where and when it was sent and received, and who if anyone- besides the sender and recipient accessed it, and where and when. Metadata can tell your surveillant the address you slept at last night and what time you got up this morning. It reveals every place you visited during your day and how long you spent there. It shows who you were in touch with and who was in touch with you.

With the dizzying volume of digital communications in the world, there is simply no way that every phone call could listened to or email could be read. Even if it were feasible, however, it still wouldn’t be useful, and anyway, metadata makes this unnecessary by winnowing the field. This is why it’s best to regard metadata not as some benign abstraction, but as the very essence of content: it is precisely the first line of information that the parity surveilling you requires.

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