Metadata Collection: Will it Destroy or Save Us?

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 7.09.09 AMBy Michael Huggins

Metadata provides a record of a user’s online activity, which includes browsing history, map searches, email activity, and even some account passwords. The NSA can use this information to build a detailed picture of an individual’s life. Opponents of the NSA’s surveillance programs argue that metadata collection programs violate an individual’s constitutional rights. However, some argue that metadata can benefit society and fight human rights violations.

Witness, a human rights group that trains citizens around the world to use video to expose human rights abuse, argues that collecting and preserving metadata can help verify those videos. Citizens and activists in conflict zones document everything on their phones. In Syria, for example, human rights activists have produced over 500,000 videos. Unfortunately, Witness cannot verify those videos without proper metadata, and as a result, the organization cannot use the videos to assist in the prosecution of human rights violations.

Witness is turning to mobile app developers to alleviate the verification problem. Witness currently supports a mobile app in collaboration with the Guardian Project called InformaCam. InformaCam uses a smartphone’s built-in sensors (e.g., wi-fi, Bluetooth, and cell tower information) to create a snapshot of the environment in which an image or video is captured. The app validates the date, time, and location of the image or video. Digital signatures and encryption prevent tampering by others. The app has an opt-in “eyewitness” or “proof” mode that users can select before creating the images or video. After a user creates an image or video, the “eyewitness” mode preserves the metadata, which provides a way to check the file for integrity.

Eyewitness and proof modes might also be helpful in resolving other human rights violations. For example, low-wage workers can use apps like InformaCam to document their hours; and individuals can use to InformaCam to protect their peer-to-peer businesses.

Despite the possible benefits, metadata collection might create a host of problems. In 2010, Michigan police sought information about every single phone located near the site of a planned labor protest without a warrant. Similarly, a Tennessee sheriff requested the location of his daughter when she was out past curfew. Opponents of the programs argue that Congress should limit all access to metadata because the risk for abuse is high. Proponents argue that metadata’s benefits outweigh the costs because organizations like Witness and the ACLU will be able to expose more civil rights violations in the United States. Metadata can either destroy or save us. Either way, Congress must pass a responsible NSA reform bill that both honors an individual’s right to privacy and acknowledges the possible benefits of metadata.

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