The recent uproar regarding the government ordered hand-over of Verizon business customers phone metadata has many wondering what is being gathered and for what purpose? We live in an information age, but many of us don’t understand exactly what “information age” means in terms of what you are actually passing along and what is being saved for later analysis. Just as our phones contain metadata, so does the web.
“Metadata” as it relates to the web
In simple terms, it is general information encompassing further details about the actual item. You can think of it as the envelope you drop into the mailbox. The contents of the envelope are unknown to those that look at it, but the envelope itself contains details that anyone is able to read. This includes information like the origin (your address) the destination (who you’re sending it to), date it was stamped by the post office, size and weight of the package, etc.
Translating this metadata concept into modern terms, every single user of the Internet freely hands over metadata to strangers every single time they click a link. In a web request, similar envelope information is required to make sure the server gets you the information you requested. This data is passed from network to network and anyone along the way could capture this data and develop patterns on their own.
For example, as I write this I’m able to observe activity on our web server and can tell you that someone in the country of Senegal is currently interested in finding out about wedding day diamonds from one of our clients. That activity is anonymous, but it gives enough detail to observe and develop patterns of activity over a period of time.
If the thought of metadata collection makes you uneasy, the quickest and easiest way to reduce metadata sharing is to update your browser’s privacy settings. You have the ability to disable tracking cookies and browsing history for each session. For example, holding “CTRL-SHIFT-N” in chrome starts this mode. This is also available for mobile privacy through the specific mobile browser you use. Go into your settings to turn off cookies, access to your location, etc.
What are your thoughts on metadata sharing? Will you be adjusting your privacy settings?