Privacy Basics: Passwords, Tracking, and Data Retention | Data Retention

Minding Your Metadata

Made by Stacy Martin, Senior Data Privacy Manager at Mozilla.

Discover how metadata can reveal even more information about Internet users like you, learning Web mechanics and privacy.

30 minutes

  • Introduction

    When you jump in your car each day to go about your life, it feels private. You probably don't think about who is watching and what they can learn about you. In this activity, you'll collect the type of data that differnt online and offline surveillance tools can gather about you. You may be surprised by how much even something as simple as your where you go reveals about you and how sensitive that information can be.

  • 15

    Who Does Your Phone Think You Are?

    Take a look at the outbound calls you made today on your mobile phone. Note how many calls you made and whom you called. Do the same for yesterday. If you need more data, look at a week's worth of calls. Take a close look at what you've recorded. Think about calls you made to discuss your health, finances, or other sensitive information. What could someone learn or guess about you simply by knowing you made a call to your doctor, bank, or, say, lawyer?

    Next, note any information about the time and duration of each call. What else can someone tell about you from when you made your calls? From how long you spoke? What if you added location data? How clear a picture of you can someone get just from this "metadata" - information about your calls?

    What does the combined data reveal about your daily routine? Could someone tell when you begin and end your day or begin and end work from your call records? Could your records show whether or not you're on vacation and when you might return?

    Now look at who called you and think about what someone can learn about you from your inbound calls. Combine this information with the data about the calls you made. What more can be learned from looking at your inbound, as well as outbound, calls?

    If you were asked to share this information with the person next to you, how comfortable would you be with the sensitivity of the data that is revealed?

  • 15

    Looking into the Data

    If you're in a group, ask participants to anonymously contribute the general detuals about one call using notecards or Post-Its placed into a box. Ask for generic descriptions of their calls, like, "I received a call from my doctor in the morning."

    Draw one card at a time, read it, and place it on a whiteboard or piece of poster paper to create a timeline of a typical person's calls. Once you complete the timeline by adding all the cards, ask group members to brainstorm all the information they can collect about this person. After five minutes or so of brainstorming, invite group members to share their ideas with the group.

    If you are working alone, look at your metadata. What kinds of personas can you make from it? Who, besides you, could be someone with similar metadata? Would a company or government have any reason to use this data or take a closer look at this person? Do you think it's okay for a company or goverment to do so based on the data at-hand?

  • 10

    Reflect on Metadata

    Take time to answer these questions for yourself or discuss them in your group.

    • What could a government learn if they had access to this type of data from an individual or from a particular group of people?
    • What could a government learn if they had this type of data from an entire country?
    • Does data collection like this help law-enforcement?
    • Should we allow law-enforcement to collect data like this?
    • What could be the consequences - good or bad - of giving government the power to collect this information?
    • What kinds of calls could give a company or government the most information about a person or group?
    • What kinds of calls would you definitely not want the government to collect information about?
    • How can you impact national policy about government data collection from your phone?