The recent NSA revelations came as a surprise to some and were no shock to others. So what is this metadata that the government is collecting and why is it so important?
Metadata is the "who, what, when, where, and how" of any digital correspondence.
Collecting all of this might sound harmless enough: The government can’t see what’s in your e-mails or hear what you’re saying on the phone without a warrant. And as Obama reminded us on Friday, "you can’t have a hundred percent security and also then have a hundred percent privacy and zero inconvenience."
But to some, the idea that the government can simply piece together a few phone calls to infer the "why" missing from the metadata is unsettling. Let’s say you get a phone call from a certain political campaign, talk for a few minutes, then call your spouse, and then your bank. You probably made a political donation. Or, say someone looked at a lot of radical Islamist YouTube videos, researched homemade bombs, and frequently Skyped with radical clerics – if the government could piece all of this metadata information together, a potential terrorist threat might be identified and stopped.
Obama has assured US citizens that the government is storing the metadata for just that: to weed out future security threats. Carefully worded data-collection laws have made sure that the government is doing nothing that is technically illegal. Both Google and Facebook have said that they only release their data to the government when they are presented with warrants.
As you go forward, be aware that your handy-dandy smart phone is a tracking device. Your phone's location data can create a breadcrumb trail of everywhere you and the phone have been. Unless you remove the battery, a smart phone can track you, even if it is turned off.
This infographic from 2009 traces the footsteps of a German politician, Malte Spitz, as he moves around the country. The information was collecting using data taken from his cellphone company.