I spent this past week in Boston, MA with a group of data experts discussing Open Economics Data and (unavoidably) metadata. It was the second such workshop put together by the Sloan Foundation and the Open Knowledge Foundation and I must say that there is no better way to spend two (rainy) days than to be locked up with a group of smart and dedicated data people in a meeting room of the Sloan School of Management with campus wide, open WiFi access.
We all found it amusing that metadata, typically the subject of workshops such as ours, was now repeatedly discussed on prime time TV and I was personally amused to hear prime time talking heads explain the difference between http and https. This was the immediate aftermath of E. Snowden’s whistle blowing on massive eavesdropping activities by the US government. The Obama administration tried to downplay the news using two main arguments. The first is that no data is being collected on US citizens’ phone calls but only metadata and the second is that cloud spying was directed against foreigners only.
Data in the case of a phone call is a recording of the conversation whereas the phone call’s metadata consists of such things as the source and target telephone numbers, geo-locations of the participants, ownership of the numbers involved as well as the time the conversation started and ended. By saying that metadata and not data was recorded the Obama administration is trying to argue that metadata has no content and hence its recording is not a violation of privacy. Why this is blatantly wrong can be easily seen in the case of a phone sex line: you do not need the recording to know what the content of such a phone call is, all you need is the metadata. This EFF blog is a beautiful rebuttal with more examples: Why Metadata Matters.
The second argument that only foreigners were targeted may be a formally valid argument in the US context but in a world of big data and cloud computing it is at least morally and politically inappropriate to argue this way. If cloud computing should become what we want it to be, namely an efficient way to buy and sell computing, then a state on whose ground, servers are located or in whose sovereignty, companies are registered may not treat foreigners with any less respect of privacy as their own citizens. If this is not legally guaranteed yet it should be politically aimed at. The Obama administration ought to know better.
In the margins of the workshop, during social activities I asked two bartenders about whether “people worry about the NSA eavesdropping”. Eerily on both cases I got the same answer: “the kids don’t care”. Granted, the probability of this answer is higher than normal on a college campus, but it goes to show you that a lot is shifting regarding what people think about their data or metadata. The predominant attitude is the “I got nothing to hide” type which is wrong simply because we will not always know whether we have something to hide.
Also on prime time TV in the US was the existence of the Utah Data Center a massive NSA data storage and processing facility. In a country where economic forecasting is as bad as it is and economic measurement lags so terribly behind technological developments it only makes you wonder how much better off we would be if a fraction of the money spent on the Utah Data Center would be invested in building an up-to-date economic measurement infrastructure.
PS: Whether or not E. Snowden finished high school or whether he is a hero or a villain is of little interest here and serves only to obscure our view on the subject matter. Whatever he is he was an employee of the apparatus he is blowing the whistle on. That should be enough! The point is that E. Snowden is the messenger and what we need to focus on is the message.