In a crime case, investigators don't have access to "the truth"—the data, if you will. All they have are clues which can be put together to make as perfect a guess as possible as to what the nature of the truth is. Metadata.
In the U.S, governments have played coy and attempted to talk down efforts of mass surveillance, particularly phone surveillance, by asserting that the actual contents of the call are not collected—only the metadata is:
In a crime investigation, having the answers to these kinds of questions could potentially make or break a case.
And that's precisely why governments collect this kind of information: it is powerful fodder in a legal setting. In an example most of us are probably familiar with, you can see that who Adnan Syed called and when were some of the most important deciding factors in placing him in a jail cell.
And as it can be used for legal justice in some cases, or the "good", it can also be used against you, like you're warned of in your Miranda rights.
So what do we do?
We protect ourselves and the people we care about, not against the government, but the possibility of government. We don't speak unless we have an attorney present. We plead the fifth.
We encrypt our data.
Smarter people before us have understood the unstoppable nature of government power, and have put in provisions such as separations of power and the Miranda rights precisely for this reason.
And today, smart people advocate endlessly for the encryption of your data as a form of self-protection. With anti-privacy legislation being signed today with a flick of a pen, it's more important than ever to understand that even metadata can and will be used against you. And, in the court of law, even if you have nothing to hide, or are fully innocent, you are still advised and even required to have a lawyer present before you can testify. Why? Because history.
Legal waters are not somewhere you want to swim in alone.
So the next time you hear that it's only "metadata" being collected, don't be fooled: metadata is the data.
This isn't to say that you shouldn't use apps that record metadata. Metadata is what allows a lot of your favorite apps to organize and keep your data in sync.
It's to instead say you should find no comfort in the fact that governments rely on the "metadata" crutch to make you feel ok with what they're doing.
The Bill of Rights of the United States constitution is about personal protections. These being such a fundamental part of our constitution is no coincidence: these were real dangers at some point.
In today's world, we are the forefathers of a new constitution, a new amendment:
The right to encrypt.
It won't come easy, but then again, nothing important ever does.
You can join the privacy movement by using and supporting software that encrypts your data. The go-to word here is "end-to-end encryption". You can learn more about what that means in our post "What is data privacy?"