Thursday, 14 April 2016

Metadata: Implications for marketers

There is no doubt about it. Metadata is increasingly becoming an important tool for many digital marketers. But what exactly is Metadata? And more importantly, what are the implications of collecting this data?

At present there is no formal definition of what constitutes metadata under Australian telecommunications law. However, it is most commonly seen as a set of data that describes and gives information about other data. In general terms metadata is more widely known as data generated from interactions you have with other people and organisations as you use technology. While no conclusive list is available, examples of metadata include phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses and location information including the time and date of activity.


We now live in a digitally connected world that has given rise to a vast amount of metadata. Embedding metadata into a range of everyday technologies we use has become commonplace. By contrast there is huge global debate as to what exactly constitutes personal information with the landscape constantly changing and evolving. The privacy revelations revealed by Edward Snowden in 2014 brought issues surrounding metadata firmly into the public eye. Metadata is about the footprint that is left behind when a person interacts with technology. The concept of metadata fits into a much larger picture of large data sets. This is data of a very large size, typically to the extent that its manipulation and management present significant logistical challenges. Previously there was no legal precedent for companies to store this data. Telecommunications companies across Australia use considerable resources to store metadata for both data analysis and billing purposes.

From the perspective of the consumer, metadata can reveal private and potentially revealing details about their lives. There have already been abuses of metadata that have raised the privacy implications for consumers. Storing vast amounts of consumer metadata for two years rather than 30 days vastly increases the risk of the information being targeted for hacking. The Australian privacy commissioner has previously stated that the telecommunications companies are among the worst at storing data. The implications of this to individual privacy are potentially huge given the rich detail of the data. By enforcing the increased storage and encryption of this metadata would likely result in higher costs subsequently being passed on to the consumer. The impact that the collection of data has on the lives of individuals is the same regardless of whether the capturing of metadata is legal or not. We cannot control the data being collected by telecommunications companies. But at the same time, consumers should have a choice in the right to control collection, access to and use of their metadata.


The implications of metadata and privacy are a concern for many worldwide. In 2011, the German politician Malte Spitz filed a lawsuit against T-Mobile to release metadata from his phone account. The European Union Data Retention Directive requires telecommunications companies within the EU to store customer data for a period of six months. The directive was later declared invalid and annulled after lobbying by a digital rights advocacy group. Wikipedia Co-Founder Jimmy Wales has been vocal on the implications of the collection of metadata enforced by federal law, describing it as a ‘human rights violation’. Consumers may feel threatened and concerned about their freedom of speech with so much personal data being collected.

The lack of a clear definition of metadata in Australia is a key issue that contributes in failing to adequately protect the privacy of individuals. However, this lack of a formal definition of what constitutes metadata is meant to protect the fast paced and ever changing technology industry. As a legal definition appears unlikely until new legislation is passed, it would suggest that metadata will continue to be an issue in regards to privacy for both individuals and organisations. Metadata is becoming increasingly important to marketers as a tool to better understand customers. Depending upon its complexity, metadata can be used in a number of ways from everything from search engine optimisation to increasing content uptake. What makes it so attractive to marketers is that it provides rich data that can be analysed to gain a broader picture of users but also that the data can be tailored at the individual level.


Ethically, customers are informed of the data being captured in the privacy policy and under what conditions their information can be shared. However, from an individual perspective we must remember that in the digital age the right to privacy and self-determination are important issues and must continue to be fought for. In the larger picture, this concerns the question of what exactly constitutes individual's privacy and exactly how much control individuals have other their digital footprint.

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