October 24, 2017

The Metadata Belongs to Us

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In the good ole days of the wild west ’60s and ’70s, a passenger could board a plane with his sawed off shotgun, a dozen or so sticks of dynamite, maybe a M1 and a couple hundred rounds of ammo, or the favorite weapon and steel can full of gasoline. The little kid, caught between the end of little league season and the start of a new school year, could take a ballerina hostage and ask the pilot of a DC-9 to go on a joyride across the Atlantic. If the kid chose the wrong kind of plane for going across an ocean, like the DC-9, not a problem. The airlines would switch planes and crews. Those little kids are now mature adults probably working in the Department of Homeland Security, writing blog posts that celebrate pride for a diverse workforce and admonishing their point of the spear comrades frisking old ladies and kids to carefully inspect shampoo bottles, razors, and snow globes for infractions. The snow globe has more carry on restrictions than the sawed off in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to UsĀ is a Pulp Fiction goes airborne history of the hijacking craze that began in the early 1960s and peaked a decade later. Without metal detectors at airports, anyone with a grievance and a gun could get on a plane and demand a flight to Cuba. Hijackings became so popular, one plane was hijacked by two different groups during the same flight. If a pilot didn’t feel like drinking margaritas in Cuba, waiting for a new plane to go home (Fidel kept the planes, thank you), he could pack some heat of his own and blow away the hijacker, which one pilot did, shooting a teenager who wanted a free ride in the skies and wasn’t bright enough to take a ballerina hostage. No grievance seemed too petty and minor disputes with the IRS could cause a hijacker wannabe to grab his gun and find a plane with the ultimatum “I exist and I demand to be noticed.”

Almost a trillion photographs are now uploaded yearly to social media sites, making it harder than ever to actually get noticed. Getting a security clearance from the feds seems easier than being verified by social media. All this metadata belongs to the feds and is held in a secure location which means it’s being read daily by the Syrian Electronic Army, known to his parents and classmates as fourteen year old Nabil from Dearborn.

In the good ole days when the fourteen year old kids took ballerinas hostage with pa’s shotgun, metadata was referred to as gossip. You could discern the difference between a signal and the noise by the blushing red cheeks and the fist or a rock coming in your direction. My first and only bowling league was as that fourteen year old and after hazing another kid for his juvenile delinquent metadata, he took off his combat boots and threw them across the bowling alley at me. Our inner city bowling league would have made Chris Schenkel take hostages.

Before metadata, you actually had to go somewhere to find out what was going on. If there was a sign on the property warning to keep off, you just waved it off unless the owner had come out to greet you with his shotgun. Good luck examining the metadata of the most catty nation on earth. The feds didn’t even know about their own Secret Service agents partying with hookers in Colombia. Nate Silver admits in The Signal and the Noise that he had to go to the ballpark to learn the reason behind the numbers. The data failed to reveal the whole story.

The Skies Belong to Us is the kind of story that’ll make you want to minimize the social media accounts and tell the metadata to get a life.

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