The devil is in the metadata

Michael Geist

“We are seeing some very significant tensions develop in the emerging landscape around privacy, surveillance and security.”

— Michael Geist

By Sean Rushton

If Edward Snowden made us less naive about the extent of global surveillance programs around the world, he also heightened our awareness about the privacy implications of surfing the Web, sending email and using social media in an increasingly surveilled online world.

Yet our concerns about privacy and surveillance do not exist in a vacuum. They are tempered by anxiety over security, says Michael Geist, which was heightened following the tragic Parliament Hill shootings last fall.

“We are seeing some very significant tensions develop in the emerging landscape around privacy, surveillance and security,” says Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. “And all of this is happening as the government continues to move forward with a number of different legislative reforms of privacy laws in Canada.”

While Canadians have expressed a real concern over privacy, Geist believes it hasn't translated well at the legislative and policy levels. In the summer of 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada declared that access to telecom subscribers’ personal information would require a court warrant.

Despite this ruling and a warning from Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Bill C-13 (Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act) and Bill S-4 (Digital Privacy Act) moved forward in concert. Bill C-13 received royal assent in late 2014, while Bill S-4 is well on its way to being enacted. Both pieces of legislation expand access to subscriber data without court oversight or a warrant.

One of the thorniest issues involves “metadata,” or data about data. Metadata is not the content of our email or phone messages. It’s about everything else — the date and length of the call and the location of the caller, the email receiver’s name and email address, the subject of the email, among multiple other details.

“The Canadian government has sought to establish that metadata is relatively innocuous,” explains Geist, “and thus deserving of lowering the bar, so to speak, on warrants for such information. But it seems to me that this is really an outdated notion given what modern data mining technologies can reveal about us from our metadata.”

The privacy implications of having easy access to our metadata are profound and Geist has been a tireless advocate in debates over both bills, regularly appearing before parliamentary committees and playing a key role in bringing public awareness and a privacy perspective to the policy deliberations.

“I believe there is certainly an opportunity, if not an obligation, to ensure that much of the work that I do extends beyond the classroom, or even the campus, to the broader public,” he says. “If this engagement improves policy and educates the public, so much the better.”

Geist has made public education on technology law issues, such as copyright, Net neutrality and privacy, central to his responsibilities as a law professor for more than a decade. Communicated widely through weekly syndicated columns, a popular blog, and regular appearances in the media and before Parliament, his research will undoubtedly continue to shape future digital issues in Canada.

This article was originally published in Research Perspectives – Summer 2015.

Main photo:
Michael Geist. Photo: Peter Thornton

Michael Geist

Michael Geist has made public education on technology law issues central to his responsibilities as a law professor. Photo: Peter Thornton


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