Metadata Liberation Movement

Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal: “The biggest problem, then, with metadata surveillance may simply be that the wrong agencies are in charge of it. One particular reason why this matters is that the potential of metadata surveillance might actually be quite large but is being squandered by secret agencies whose narrow interest is only looking for terrorists….
“Big data” is only as good as the algorithms used to find out things worth finding out. The efficacy and refinement of big-data techniques are advanced by repetition, by giving more chances to find something worth knowing. Bringing metadata out of its black box wouldn’t only be a way to improve public trust in what government is doing. It would be a way to get more real value for society out of techniques that are being squandered on a fairly minor threat.
Bringing metadata out of the black box would open up new worlds of possibility—from anticipating traffic jams to locating missing persons after a disaster. It would also create an opportunity to make big data more consistent with the constitutional prohibition of unwarranted search and seizure. In the first instance, with the computer withholding identifying details of the individuals involved, any red flag could be examined by a law-enforcement officer to see, based on accumulated experience, whether the indication is of interest.
If so, a warrant could be obtained to expose the identities involved. If not, the record could immediately be expunged. All this could take place in a reasonably aboveboard, legal fashion, open to inspection in court when and if charges are brought or—this would be a good idea—a court is informed of investigations that led to no action.
Our guess is that big data techniques would pop up way too many false positives at first, and only considerable learning and practice would allow such techniques to become a useful tool. At the same time, bringing metadata surveillance out of the shadows would help the Googles, Verizons and Facebooks defend themselves from a wholly unwarranted suspicion that user privacy is somehow better protected by French or British or (heavens) Chinese companies from their own governments than U.S. data is from the U.S. government.
Most of all, it would allow these techniques to be put to work on solving problems that are actual problems for most Americans, which terrorism isn’t.”