Metadata is some bits of information which are used to sort, organize and even make finding other information easier. in a nutshell, metadata is data about data. An example of metadata is what is in library catalogue cards. These cards contain some data about a book. For instance, the card can have a category, a code, a title of the book, its author and a brief synopsis of the book. With this card, you can find the exact location of a book in a library. But first, there must be a way in which metadata comes to be in the first place.
Metadata, the internet, and digital services
In this digital era, the internet and many digital services rely on metadata for them to function properly. For instance, the internet uses packets which carry information from one destination to another. the packets contain a header which is full of metadata. This metadata informs the internet services and nodes where the respective information should be directed. Below are some ways in which metadata makes other digital services we use daily to work as intended;
Surfing the internet – if it’s not for metadata, the web pages we search for on the internet won’t be found. A webpage carries some mandatory metadata which includes, its title, some description, keywords and so on. Search engines use this metadata to fetch the web pages.
Social media and networking – our social media accounts almost have every detail of information about us. if you have been keen, you might have realized you have used Facebook, Twitter or Google to log into other third-party apps/sites. Usually, when this happens, you give access to basic information such as date of birth, your friend list and even permission to post on your behalf. In simple terms, these third-party apps are requesting access to your metadata in which they use to identify you when you log in in future.
Digital entertainment catalogues – have you ever wondered how after listening to a few songs in online streaming services, you get suggestions that match your preference? Or after watching some few movies in Netflix you get a new row of movies you might like? it’s all because of the metadata sometimes scrapped from items you had selected earlier.
Typically, everything we use digitally has metadata, from music to emails to even phone calls.
Metadata and your privacy
As much as metadata is useful, it’s also a threat to your privacy. As seen above, most metadata contain our personal information such as what third-parties request off social media sites. Also, cookies and other trackers are constantly collecting metadata and sending them to data-hungry startups which in turn have neatly compiled our preferences and browsing behaviours. This metadata becomes harmful when it is sold to other third parties, that’s when privacy risks and threats arise. Below are some entities that can compromise our privacy by having access to our metadata;
cybercriminals can have access to our metadata from a third-party organization and even from cookies and trackers. With this metadata, they can propagate further attacks such as blackmail, vishing, and smishing attacks and to some extent identity fraud.
Government institutions and agencies
Intelligence agencies may gather metadata from ISPs and other organization which they then use to monitor an individual.
Most organizations use ads as their main source of income. This can be done directly and indirectly. For instance, you might have noticed you are getting a lot of ads on your social media sites. Most of the ads are not social media related but they are about a product and chances are 80% you might be interested in the product. All this is possible via metadata. For instance, your Facebook interest and likes can be used to suggests pages and target you with ads.
How to stay safe, use a VPN
Since metadata runs the digital world, its hard to avoid sharing your info and you might be even generating more metadata right now. The only thing you can do is to minimize the risks and that is possible by using a VPN.