Metadata and the NSA

This blog post is somewhat of a continuation of my last one, in which I brought up a few course readings for this week that deal with staking out the library’s relevance in a networked age and then reflected on my own informational future. Last night I got to see the movie Citizenfour here in Tuscaloosa at the Bama Theater, which is a documentary made by one of the journalists first contacted by Edward Snowden and who broke the NSA domestic spying news story a year and a half ago. I think like a lot of people this event forever changed my knowledge and perception of “metadata,” and that’s one of the reasons why I was interested in taking this course in the first place. During an interview from his Hong Kong hotel room Snowden explains that what motivated him to leak details about the government’s top secret monitoring and tracking program was a profound sense of disillusionment. He mentions that in the post-9/11 America self-policing is the norm and there is this constant expectation of being watched. What’s still so shocking to me now is that I remember at the time that this scandal came out thinking that this kind of extreme action by our elected officials wasn’t unexpected and that it is all just a part of our collective and growing lack of concern for our own privacy. Another lesson that I quickly learned from this whole event is that metadata in the aggregate basically is content, and that even if NSA spies aren’t listening in on every word of your phone call a lot of inferences about your life and behavior can still be made from just the metadata that’s collected over time. I know that for our purposes we are dealing with metadata about objects and not about people, but I think a lot of the underlying issues regarding rights and privacy are the same. So while we talk about how libraries can take advantage of big data and how soon they will be able to offer recommendation and predictive search services just like Google and Amazon, let’s not forget that the world of metadata is a really sensitive place right now. Libraries are supposed to promote free thinking. How much of this are we willing to concede?

I also wanted to mention that at one point in the movie the camera panned across Snowden’s hotel room and I caught a glimpse of the Cory Doctorow novel Homeland on his bed. I had never heard of him before this week when we read “Metacrap”. I might have to check him out some more now.

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