Everyone wants a piece of me: metadata, scientists & the big data frontier

The more and more we become immersed in connected technology it seems the more often we are faced with the implications of our privacy.

A dominant reading of the potential pitfalls of our engagement with digital media is definitely one of dystopia. This is no surprise with fears of big business sharing the traces of data we leave from our engagement online and generally our community is becoming more and more reliant on surveillance.


This ‘datafication’ of everything we do online has resulted in a new scientific paradigm that is both problematic for both the collectors and the citizens providing it (van Dijck 2014).

It seems that the powers of technology has big business ‘giddy’ with the possibilities of what inferences can be made from data and is collecting large swathes of it, every way they can.

All I want to do is download angry birds without worrying who has downloaded my information and what that says about me?!


So what exactly is metadata?

The real gold these filthy prospectors are after lies in metadata – the information about our interactions online. One type is descriptive metadata that includes keywords that could lead to inferences about everything from how we react or feel about a certain topic or person to our relationships, wants, needs, fears, hopes and dreams. Theoretically, inferences could be made from a broad range of things just based upon keywords.

Metadata also includes specific information about a user including the title, author, subjects and publisher of information.

From Datafication is bred an exciting new chapter for corporations – predicative analysis – where the real fun starts for those interested in what you want.

Just imagine if you could tell whose line of ‘BO basher’ I am likely to prefer in ten years. Just imagine scientists!


There’s already evidence that information scientists can make inferences from data left behind online.

Kosinski and others (2013) proved that inferences about human behaviour could be predicted from Facebook Likes. Everything from sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality to intelligence and happiness was derived from social media interactions.

The scariest thing about this seems to be that everyone is lining up with a hand out to get access to our data.

The Australian Federal Government recently released a list of 60 organisations that include everything from local councils to the Department of Fisheries – all strutting their stuff under Freedom of Information Laws.

But it’s not just government agencies interested in the supposed power of metadata, educational institutions also are quite curious about what our smartphone says about us.

The digital footprint I leave behind really means that nowhere is safe. It’s not significant anymore if I choose to shop at home or like something while strolling through uni – everyone wants a piece of me!

While all this is going on behind the scenes, the solution would seem to create a pseudonym and carry it across all of your devices, apps, profiles, everywhere. They can have all the random info they like about I.P Freely!

Perhaps another option – feel relief in the fact that the sorting of fact from fiction when it comes to data mining is probably about as fraught with complication as it is for the citizen who blindly engages with digital media.

The lesson from all of this is to be mindful that while there may be advantages in engaging with digital media, more often than not the potential pitfalls of data retention have yet to be fully realised.

(580 words excluding citations).


van Dijck, J 2014, ‘Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology.’ Surveillance & Society 12, 2, 197-208, retrieved 30/8/2016, http://www.surveillance-and-society.org.

Kosinski, M, Stillwell, D and Graepel, T 2013, ‘Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behaviour,’ PNAS, 110, 15, 5802–5805, retrieved 30/8/2016, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/03/06/1218772110.full.pdf+html.

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