Data is a by-product of the information society and socialization, Schneier told attendees. It has become easier to do things online, and the very act of doing something using technology results in data. For example, he described how an IM conversation was data—for its content, but also by virtue of the fact that it happened. Details about when it happened, who the conversation was with, the geographic locations of the participants, and other such information is part of the conversation’s metadata.
“Metadata is us,” Schneier said, noting that the government claiming they are collecting “only” metadata downplays just how much insights can be gleaned from the information.
Metadata is far easier to store, search, and analyze, than actual content, and actually has far more value to an intelligence agency, Schneier said. Law enforcement tracking a terror network don’t necessarily need the actual conversations, but rather information about who is talking to who. “Metadata is fundamentally surveillance data,” he said.
Data is currency, and consumers are willing to hand over their information in exchange for “free or convenience,” Schneier said. Companies such as Facebook and Google want the data so that they can sell more stuff. Users hand it over to play games, to get email, or some other benefit. “I like to think of this as a feudal model. At a most fundamental model, we are tenant farming for companies like Google. We are on their land producing data,” he said.
By handing the data over, users have an expectation of trust that Google, Facebook, and other data brokers will do the right thing with the personal data. However, this becomes a power play when governments get involved. Governments don’t need to collect the data themselves when corporations are already doing it.