For years, metadata has been ticking away behind the scenes, with web purists developing elements for mainstream users to consume. But now the term metadata has been thrust into the media and political spotlight – a dangerous combination indeed. A mixture of misunderstanding, fear and reputation management has caused a significant level of confusion about what metadata is and how it can be used.
Metadata is simply data about data. It is the product label on your tin of information. Using tags you tell users what is in the tin, when it was made, who made it, when it will expire and you describe how the contents of the tin might be used.
Is metadata content? It absolutely is a form of content.
So what is it that the government has decided is so important?
At the beginning of August, the government announced a mandatory data retention scheme, where legislation will force telephone and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to keep metadata about usage for a period of two years. This scheme, originally proposed by the Labor government in 2012, looks to provide more information and context for investigations around national security, particularly in dealing with terrorism.
This sounds fine in theory but an announcement of this kind raises a number of questions, many of which the government cannot answer at this time.
Firstly, what will be kept? When the government was asked this question there was a statement made that an individual’s browser history would be kept. This has now been proven untrue. However, depending on what data is retained, a good portion of a users’ browser history could be kept. Again, the specifics around what will be kept have not been released, but discussions have included full content like Tweets, text messages, other social media posts and email subject lines.
This makes us all a little uncomfortable in relation to our right to privacy, a detailed text message to a loved one is available for scrutiny for up to two years.
Community concerns are ones that we can all relate to. ISPs also have their own concerns. Currently ISPs do collect some metadata on each site visit for example, but the content is only kept for a few weeks. The changes will include a longer length of time and possibly more detailed information, meaning that ISPs need to have the capacity to store an awful lot of information, while keeping it very secure.
iiNet have been the most vocal ISP on this topic and have said the data retention system will cost them $100 million to establish and would result in the customer being charged significantly extra each year.
At the moment it is a watch and wait scenario. Either the changes are going to be around time period only, retaining metadata for two years rather than a few weeks, or it will be time period and depth of detail related. We will all just have to wait and see.