Is Big Brother Watching You? The Ethical questions of Metadata

Consumption of information is crucial to libraries and information-based institutions, through the usage of various information retrieval services the user is able to readily access data. To do this, metadata standards must be in place to locate, and extract the information the user is searching for in a succinct, and easily managed way. Often when discussing metadata, it is described as data about data, however, I find this explanation rather limiting in explaining what exactly is metadata. “Metadata is a way for us to know something surrounding a piece of information, so that we have a better idea of what that information is when we go looking for it” (Stacks&Facts, 2018). In regards to libraries this is a reflection on the retrieval services they provide, how accessible it is to retrieve metadata to gain access the data within the services provided. 

After learning about metadata, I was intrigued by the ethical ramifications of it’s collection and usage by libraries and other information institutions (for example, governments and consumer-based industries). After the session I turned to David Haynes’ book Metadata for Information Management and Retrieval: Understanding Metadata and its use from 2018. Reading the chapter on the ethics of metadata, as a past English Literature graduate, I could not help but wonder, is our personal metadata a cog in an Orwellian tale brought to life?  

Individuals are often monitored through the use of CCTV, communications (such as phone calls), and their online activity, which is gathered for and by crime prevention agencies and digital advertising companies (D. Haynes, 2018).  Online activity is particularly crucial for consumer industries, this is also prevalent in social media advertising which collect information on your past purchases, and therefore, will suggest ads accordingly.

 A question of the ethical use of personal metadata began to play in my mind in the collection and potential misuse and exploitation by other information-based institution, for example governments. Stuart Baker who is a part of the National Security Agency stated “metadata tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata you don’t really need content.” (D. Haynes, 2017, p. 198) Metadata allows for our lives to become catalogued, giving the government information about those closest to us through our exact locations of phone calls, who we are calling and how long we spend on the phone. (D. Haynes 2018) The most applicable example of how governments are able to misuse our metadata is through the US Census. The US government has often been accused of exploiting metadata in regards to race, for example in 2002/2003 the Census Bureau reported “statistical information about Arab-Americans to the Department of Homeland Security.” (Julia Angwin, 2014, p. 295).  Although the US governments claims if you have nothing to hide there should be no worry about how personal metadata is collected (Daniel J. Solove, 2011). Angwin suggests the government used metadata about minority groups to aid in their profiling and justify their surveillance, arguing the importance national security over personal privacy (Julia Angwin, 2014).  

But is it vital to sacrifice personal privacy for national security?

Metadata collection for governments and other security providers has always been a contentious issue for information professionals; as we balance our desire to record everything and censor nothing, but the ethical ramifications of this viewpoint are yet to be fully realised.


Angwin, Julia, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a world of relentless surveillance”, Henry Holt and Company, New York Times Books, 2014

Haynes, David. “Metadata: The Political Dimension.” Alexandria 27, no. 3 (December 2017): 198–206. (Accessed: 1.11.2020)

Haynes, David, 2018, “Metadata for Information Management and Retrieval: Understanding Metadata and its use”, 2nd Edition, London, Facet,

Solove, Daniel J., 2011, “Nothing to hide: the false tradeoff between privacy and security”, New Haven [Conn.], Yale University Press.

Stacks & Facts, March 2018

(Accessed: 28.10.2020)

3 replies on “Is Big Brother Watching You? The Ethical questions of Metadata”

It is right to question the ethics surrounding metadata and even though there are claims that it could be absued by governments although I cannot recall such a thing happening (yet). In China, people there welcome the government using their information for the purposes of safety. They have even experimented with a system that awards points to those who abide by the law and punishing those who break them by restricting them from applying for bank loans or buying train tickets etc. As a result, if you ever go to China, you will realise it is one or if not the most safest countries in the world whereas you’d probably think twice about going out in the middle of the night in any western country.

Personally, I have no problem with governments having my information as I am a law abiding citizen and sure they can abuse that information but their number one goal is to protect their own people and personally I would be supportive of the government to be able to spy on potential terrorists who would want to endanger innocent lives.

Unfortunately the media and various politicians claim that the government is the problem and every mistake made is because of their incompetence or that they are in it for themselves etc and yes, it happens but governments are in fact the solution and we should be supportive of their efforts to help us be safe rather than us tearing them down, which in fact will make us as a society more unsafe.


I really enjoyed reading your post, Charlotte (particularly your reference to 1984). Even though I do believe it is essential for the government to use our metadata, I agree with the tone of this post – that this is a pretty scary concept.

Within libraries, this post just emphasises the fact that LIS professionals need to raise awareness of metadata and the ethics at play, to promote information and media literacy, and to give more focus to ‘fake news’. However, of course, this isn’t a particularly easy task – there needs to be a multifaceted approach with support from a number of parties.

After reading your blog, I read Haynes’ article, and I found it interesting (albeit saddening to read about it again) to link the lack of metadata and the Windrush scandal. There was tremendous injustice in this incident and part of the problem was that the Caribbean-born children’s landing records having been disposed of by the Home Office. This just illustrates how powerful metadata (or the lack of it) can be.


Like a coin has two sides, metadata on the one hand can help people or users to get all relevant information they need. on the other hand, it will cause some ethical issues. for example, When users use CCTV, phone calls, search online information, their personal information will be collected by crime prevention agencies or digital advertising companies, some web-based cookies will also collect users’ data without telling the users their purpose. This may lead to the leak of personal information and maybe used for illeagle usage. Thus it needs more strict rules to collect personal information.


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