A few weeks ago, I could only have given the haziest definition of what “metadata” is if I was asked. Thanks to the electronic surveillance disclosures of Edward Snowden, the word is heard everywhere. “Metadata” should resonate very loudly with journalists.
When Snowden released clues about the scale of surveillance conducted by the NSA, GCHQ and allied cyber-snoopers, it was quickly made clear this was – mostly – who called or emailed who, when and from where. So-called “metadata”. The actual content of the communications isn’t, apparently, collected and stored in huge industrial quantities by the governments doing this.
It took me a embarrassingly long time to work out that while this form of information collection may be useful for tracking people who might want to kill people, it is also perfectly adapted to tracing journalists’ sources. Data which tells someone who called who and when is enough to provide very strong clues about who is providing information to whom. No need for any government agency to be so intrusive and unsubtle as to listen in to the conversation itself.
The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York has just released a set of excellent essay on attacks on journalism and the one by Geoffrey King dealing with this lays out the danger very well. King quotes the author and expert on the NSA James Bamford:
“If they’re able to see all the numbers you’re calling, they’re able to tell pretty much what kind of story you’re working on, even without getting the content of it. They’re able to tell what the nature of the story is, who the sources are you’re dealing with.”
It seems at the very least arguable that if this is under way in Europe that this is a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which protects freedom of expression. Article 10 also contains exceptions, on which a government might hope to rely:
“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”
But any government defending such surveillance would have to defend what seems to be the indiscriminate gathering of this metadata on everyone, all of the time.
At the very least it’s a question worth testing. And last night I happened to talk to a leading media QC who’s keen to see the case lodged at the ECHR. Given the weirdly feeble coverage of Snowden’s disclosures in Britain, I have scant hope that our major media organisations will pick up this challenge.
But someone should.
Update 14/3/14: This study begins the work to show just how much you can glean from metadata alone.