Metadata needs protection, warns privacy commissioner

If CSOs and privacy officials have any doubts that metadata can be used to find personal information on an individual, a new paper from the office of the federal privacy commissioner should clear it up.

The report, issued last week along with the privacy commissioners’ annual report, warns policy makers and the private sector that metadata collected from telecom and Internet communications can reveal a loot about a person, and therefore devices privacy protection.

“Government institutions that collect or are considering collecting such information should not underestimate what metadata can reveal about an individual,” the report concludes. “The same goes for private-sector organizations that are requested to disclose such data to government institutions, including law enforcement agencies.

“Given the ubiquitous nature of metadata and the powerful inferences that can be drawn about specific individuals, government institutions and private-sector organizations will have to govern their collection and disclosure activities according to appropriate processes and standards that are commensurate with the potential level of sensitivity of metadata in any given set of circumstances.”

Metadata is defined as data that provides information about other data. Usually this means details about the creation, transmission and distribution of a voice, text or email message without intercepting the content of the message itself. But, the paper notes, for an email metadata can include the sender and receiver’s names, email and IP addresses, the server transfer information, MessageID, subject of the email and other information. Metadata from a social networking site can include name, biographical information, username and unique identifier, location and device.

Metadata can show so much it “can sometimes be more revealing that content itself,” says the report.

The paper notes that the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that individuals can enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in information that links their identity to a piece of metadata, including an IP address. The court held that police had no right to ask a telecom carrier for subscriber information matching an IP address from an ISP, without a search warrant.


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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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