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: Continue reading →