Metadata is data about data. It is the information that describes, summarizes, or identifies the content, context, or structure of other data. For example, metadata can tell you when, where, and by whom a photo was taken, or what software was used to create a document, or how long a phone call lasted and who was on the line.
Metadata may seem harmless and innocuous at first glance, but it can reveal a lot of private information about you and your activities, preferences, habits, relationships, and even your health. In this blog post, we will explore some of the ways metadata can expose your privacy and how you can protect yourself from unwanted surveillance and tracking.
How Metadata Can Reveal Your Location
One of the most common types of metadata is geolocation data, which is the information that indicates where a device or a person is located. Geolocation data can be derived from various sources, such as GPS coordinates, Wi-Fi networks, cell towers, IP addresses, or Bluetooth beacons.
Geolocation data can reveal where you live, work, shop, travel, or visit. It can also show your patterns of movement and behavior over time. For example, if you take photos with your smartphone and share them online, the metadata embedded in the photos can show where and when you took them. If you use a fitness tracker or a smartwatch, the metadata collected by these devices can show how far and how fast you walk, run, or bike. If you use a ride-hailing app or a navigation app, the metadata generated by these apps can show where you go and how often. Geolocation data can also be used to infer other information about you, such as your income level, your political affiliation, your religious beliefs, or your hobbies. For example, if you visit a luxury store or a casino frequently, it may indicate that you have a high income. If you attend a protest rally or a political event regularly, it may indicate that you have a certain political stance. If you go to a church or a mosque often, it may indicate that you have a certain religious faith. If you go to a gym or a park frequently, it may indicate that you have a certain hobby.
How Metadata Can Reveal Your Relationships
Another type of metadata is communication data, which is the information that describes who you communicate with, when, how often, and for how long. Communication data can be derived from various sources, such as phone calls, text messages, emails, social media posts, or online chats.
Communication data can reveal who your friends, family members, colleagues, partners, or enemies are. It can also show how close or distant you are with them and how your relationships change over time. For example, if you call or text someone frequently and for long durations at certain times of the day or night, it may indicate that you have a close or intimate relationship with them. If you email someone rarely and briefly during working hours only, it may indicate that you have a formal or professional relationship with them. If you block someone on social media or stop communicating with them altogether, it may indicate that you have a conflict or a breakup with them.
Communication data can also be used to infer other information about you, such as your personality traits, your mood, your interests, or your opinions. For example, if you use certain words, emojis, or hashtags in your messages or posts, it may indicate that you have certain personality traits, such as being extroverted, optimistic, or sarcastic. If you communicate more or less than usual, or at unusual times, it may indicate that you are happy, sad, stressed, or bored. If you mention certain topics, brands, or celebrities in your messages or posts, it may indicate that you are interested in them or have an opinion about them.
How Metadata Can Reveal Your Health
A third type of metadata is health data, which is the information that describes your physical or mental condition, your medical history, or your health-related behaviors. Health data can be derived from various sources, such as wearable devices, medical records, online searches, or health apps.
Health data can reveal what diseases or disorders you have or are at risk of developing. It can also show how well or poorly you are managing your health and what treatments or interventions you are using or need. For example, if you wear a device that monitors your heart rate, blood pressure, or glucose levels, the metadata collected by the device can show if you have or are prone to having cardiovascular disease, hypertension, or diabetes. If you access your medical records online or search for health-related information online, the metadata generated by these activities can show what diagnoses or symptoms you have or are concerned about. If you use a health app that tracks your medication intake, exercise routine, or diet plan, the metadata produced by the app can show how well or poorly you are following your doctor’s advice or your personal goals. Health data can also be used to infer other information about you, such as your lifestyle choices, your preferences, or your needs. For example, if you use a device that measures your sleep quality, duration, or patterns, the metadata gathered by the device can show if you have a healthy or unhealthy sleep habit. If you use a health app that records your food intake, calorie consumption, or weight changes, the metadata created by the app can show if you have a balanced or unbalanced diet. If you use a health app that logs your mood, stress level, or mental health issues, the metadata generated by the app can show if you need more support, counseling, or therapy.
How to Protect Your Privacy from Metadata
Metadata can reveal a lot of private information about you that you may not want to share with others. However, there are some ways to protect your privacy from metadata collection, analysis, or disclosure. Here are some tips to help you:
- Be aware of what metadata you are creating and sharing. Read the privacy policies and terms of service of the devices, apps, and platforms that you use and understand what metadata they collect, how they use it, and who they share it with. Adjust your privacy settings and preferences accordingly and opt out of any unnecessary or unwanted data collection or sharing.
- Use encryption and anonymization tools. Encrypt your data and communications to prevent unauthorized access or interception. Use anonymization tools, such as VPNs, Tor, or proxy servers, to hide or change your IP address and location. Use pseudonyms, aliases, or burner accounts to conceal or vary your identity and contact information.
- Minimize or delete your metadata. Minimize the amount and type of metadata that you create and share. For example, turn off or limit the geolocation features on your devices and apps, disable or delete the metadata embedded in your photos or documents, or avoid using certain words or phrases that may reveal sensitive information. Delete any unnecessary or outdated metadata that you have stored on your devices or online accounts, or use secure deletion tools to erase them permanently.
Choose privacy-friendly devices, apps, and platforms. Use devices, apps, and platforms that respect your privacy and do not collect or share excessive or invasive metadata. For example, use open-source software that does not have backdoors or hidden features, use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps that do not store or access your metadata, or use social media platforms that do not track or profile you based on your metadata.
Metadata is data about data that can reveal a lot of private information about you and your activities, preferences, habits, relationships, and health. Metadata can be derived from various sources, such as geolocation data, communication data, or health data. Metadata can also be used to infer other information about you, such as your income level, political affiliation, religious beliefs, hobbies, personality traits, mood, interests, opinions, lifestyle choices, needs, and more.
To protect your privacy from metadata collection, analysis, or disclosure, you should be aware of what metadata you are creating and sharing, use encryption and anonymization tools, minimize or delete your metadata, and choose privacy-friendly devices, apps, and platforms.