What’s all this Internet metadata fuss about, you asked over breakfast this morning.

Metadata, as we learned from the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is what electronic spy agencies are after – it’s the descriptive data that surrounds Internet messaging.

What IP address the communications is from, where it went to, the time, data, duration of the call etc. – but not, the agencies assure people, the message itself.

Thanks to Snowden we know Canadian and U.S. agencies have been scooping up metadata on millions of citizens to find out if they can use it to track people, or establish suspicious patterns.

Besides, how sensitive could metadata be?

Very, according to the latest study of metadata collected from volunteers at Stanford University.

As a report on the study in ArsTechnica.com details, researchers were able to infer medical conditions and firearm ownership, among other things.

And that was from only 546 people.

The data is being collected from Android phones with an app that collects logs.

Using Google Places and Yelp can identify callers and who’s being called.

In some cases, researchers made what they say are logical deductions – if a person talks to a religious institution for a lengthy time one can infer the caller is of that religion. It’s not a perfect conclusion, but it isn’t unreasonable.

What can you infer about someone who has long calls with Alcoholics Anonymous?

But some information can be confirmed with a check of a caller’s Facebook page.

Whether government agencies should be doing mass collecting of this kind of information, or, as Snowden says, they should be restricted to doing it only against identified persons is a debate we should be having.

But the Stanford study indicates the metadata is not so innocent.

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Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca 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 [@] soloreporter.com