Security specialists often see metadata as an Achilles heel of privacy protection. The usual data can be hidden and encrypted to keep it safe from thieves and prying eyes. But it’s way more difficult to protect metadata.
First of all, what is metadata?
Metadata tells information about data. It might sound confusing, but actually, chances are very high you’ve seen it. If you check the properties of an image you have stored on your device, you will see at least its size in bytes and pixels. And if metadata was altered by the camera the photo was taken with or the author of the picture, you’ll see even more information such as the time when the image was created, the name of the author, and so on.
You also share metadata with websites all the time. For example, if you decided to download a certain picture or just view it, you’ll create the metadata of this interaction. It will tell your real IP address if you’re not using a VPN app and a timestamp of this request.
Metadata makes file processing more convenient because it decreases the amount of data required to manage files. This is especially useful for working with large files. However, it might unveil a lot of information about you that should remain private. For example, the phone call log is also considered metadata. And if someone gets access to it, all this might have negative consequences for you.
Two types of metadata
This data can be divided into two types by its purpose.
This type of metadata tells all about how information is stored. It describes the features of data making its kind clear. For instance, the metadata of a photo will contain its size in bytes and pixels as well as the format. The structural metadata of a video file would tell its size, length, dimensions, and format.
This type of metadata gives more nuances about the contents. Such information is very detailed.
For example, the descriptive metadata of a photo could tell the model of the camera it was taken with, whether the picture was edited, the name of the author, the location where the picture was taken, and many other details. The amount of information depends on the settings of the camera in this case. But if you take a picture on your smartphone, quite likely the descriptive metadata will contain at least the time when it was taken and the location. Which is already quite a lot.
Therefore, descriptive metadata can reveal many details about us. Especially, when it comes to the location.
The metadata you deal with every day
Even though this concept might be new to you, it’s something you interact with daily. You’re using it all the time without even realizing it. Here are the kinds of services most of us use all the time, that create metadata.
- Phone calls — every call creates metadata that’s used for your operator to log your calls for billing and other needs. The metadata, in this case, contains the numbers of people who were talking, the time of the call, for how long it lasted, and even the locations of both of you.
- Emails — we use them fairly often. Each email you send will receive your name and email address, the time when it was sent, your IP address, and other details that describe the message an email contained. This metadata is required to deliver the message to the right person, organize all incoming messages, and display them properly.
- Social media — try logging into Facebook and you’ll notice that it knows about people you know but didn’t befriend yet. It will offer you to add them as friends. Also, if you’re signing up for it, quite likely you’ll see that it knows some basic information like your name already. It happens because your Google account and even your browser already have some metadata. All your likes on social media also are considered metadata and are used by marketers to offer you relevant ads.
- Media services — Netflix, Spotify, and other services that provide you with content will contain metadata that will let them keep your songs, movies, and series organized. It will contain the name of the song, album, artist, and so on.
- Web pages — metadata of a web page contains its title and description, used keywords, and many other details. This data required for search engines to detect the purpose of the page and index it so that you can search the internet better.
Can you reduce your metadata?
While this type of data is no doubt useful, it can contain some sensitive bits about you that you’d prefer to keep secret. It’s difficult to decrease the amount of metadata you create. But there are some things you can do to protect your privacy.
Software instead of online tools
Online services are convenient, but they create a lot of metadata trying to tailor the service to your needs. Software that requires installation is not as personalized and convenient, but it will create a smaller trail of metadata.
Remove metadata and update the settings
First of all, you can control some bits of information. For example, you can set up your phone camera so that it doesn’t capture the location of the photo, too. There also are numerous tools that remove unnecessary metadata from files stored on your device.
Use a VPN app
Even a free VPN can add a layer of protection. iNinja offers the best free VPN for Android, iOS, and desktop devices. It will cover your IP address thus eliminating the risk that hackers will crawl into your device when you’re connected to the unprotected WiFi network. Also, the fact that your IP will be covered will let you stay more anonymous online even if you’re using your home WiFi.
Metadata is necessary, but it’s always useful to do something to reduce the amount of it and protect the information you can’t get rid of.