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Reasonable Expectation of Privacy, the NSA, and the value of metadata

My nephew still likes phones.
My almost-two-year-old nephew still likes phones.


A week ago, the general public didn’t know or care about metadata. Now, thanks to the NSA, it’s all anyone talks about. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has already said that this kind of information collection without a warrant is fine because there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy attached to this type of metadata.

Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere
Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere

How much do people value information about the calls we make — the numbers we dial and the length of our calls? Quite a lot, it seems, even when they (supposedly) aren’t able or allowed to listen to the calls. You can do cool things with metadata about who contacts whom.

In libraries, we’ve know the power of metadata for a really long time. We’re in the business of creating, buying, licensing, and using metadata. And library vendors are in the business of charging us an arm and a leg for metadata, and of forbidding us from sharing their metadata. Their metadata is powerful. And above all, their metadata is theirs. Do not mess with their metadata.

Granted, cataloging and indexing produce rich, multi-facetted metadata, and the NSA is looking at “thin” metadata — nobody’s gone through the calls and classified them according to topic (we assume). This is the equivalent of author, title, and publication information. But perhaps telephone and internet companies will now be looking to library vendors for some pointers on making a tidy profit on all their metadata, especially now that we all know it’s not legally private after all.

It’s probably too much to hope that libraries will get better deals from vendors on the strength of an argument about how metadata isn’t private. The ultimate Open Access: nothing is private.

p.s. To any non-librarian readers: Libraries complete destroy your check-out records on purpose so that the government can’t ask us for it. Just FYI.

Published inRandom Thoughts