By Dino Londis (Invests.com) – Earlier this month Alexander Sotkin, a Russian soldier, uploaded a selfie on Instagram. He’d done it many times before photo, only this time the photo was geotagged in the village of Krasnyi Derkul on the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia.
Russia had long maintained that there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, but the selfie of this communications officer proved otherwise.
The geotag is metadata and it’s at the heart of tracking people and events on and off the Internet.
Just a few days after Sotkin inadvertently revealed his location, Google used metadata to lead authorities to a Houston man, John Henry Skillern, saying he was storing pornographic images of children in his Gmail account.
Google’s terms and services agreement says that it regularly scans the content of all the information kept by customers on its servers, but images are different. Without words that can be indexed, how did Google know the images where illegal?
It used a relatively new technology called PhotoDNA which was developed by Microsoft to combat online sexual content of children. Even if Skillern renamed the photos, they are tagged with metadata – and that signature never changes.
The debate about metadata is most robust in Australia where the Abbott government is drafting legislation to require telephone and internet companies to keep metadata created by its citizen for 2 years, citing terrorism threats.
In a nationally televised interview, Abbott said “that the metadata is the material on the front of the envelope and the contents of the letter will remain private.”
That metaphor sparked outrage among civil libertarians in the country as disingenuous or even just plain dumb. As in the case of the Alexander Sotkin, what he Instagrammed wasn’t as nearly revealing as the metadata that it contained.
Internet Metadata is widely understood to be:
The time and length of phone calls
The addresses of computers from which messages are received or sent
Locations of parties making phone calls
To and from email addresses on emails
Logs of visitors to chat rooms online
Status of chat sites – whether they are active and how many people are participating
Chat aliases or identifiers
Start and finish times of Internet sessions
The location of an individual involved in communications
The name of the application someone uses online and when, where and for how long used
With all that information, the content is hardly relevant.
Metadata is not new and in fact predates the Internet by centuries. Book metadata is at least as old as the Library at Alexandria, constructed in the 3rd century BC.
Law firms have long known about the value of metadata. Early versions of Microsoft Word contain troves of data about documents, like how long they were worked on and who worked on them.
When you start working on a new Word document, a timer starts, and once you save the document, the time consumed is saved as the total editing time. If the firm bills for more than that time it can get into trouble with the client and the court.
If the firm uses track changes, internal comments can be inadvertently sent to opposing counsel, giving away their strategy, as revealed in this paper by Assistant Attorney General – Natural Resources Division, Blake Anthony Klinkner.
Many law firms now employ metadata scrubbers to remove all traces of how the document was created. Microsoft provides some simple tools as well.
As for your digital footprint on the Internet, that is harder to remove.
A better way to approach it is to decentralize it. BitTorrent is working on snoop-proof communication platform called Bleep. It allows users to make calls and send messages over the Internet without using a central server to direct traffic.
Instead, users will find one another through groups of other users, with no records of the calls or texts stored anywhere along the way. Without a central server metadata is distributed and harder to collect.
Bleep is in Alpha testing and if you can’t wait, Tor has been doing this for a while. Careful though there’s a metadata footprint right behind you.