06/23/2013 06:38 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2013


It's a weird word.

For over two weeks now, the news is that the National Security Agency (or NSA) has for years been vacuuming "meta-data" from AT&T, Verizon and all our computer servers with the willing assistance of the Silicon Valley's best and brightest -- Google, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, YouTube, AOL, Paypal, etc. -- and then storing it on government servers.

According to the government, they haven't looked at the actual content of any conversation or email without first obtaining a warrant (from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court). So the "meta-data" just sits there all by its lonesome, as it were, until some patriot armed with the proper clearance mines it to foil a terrorist plot. Also according to the government, this "meta-data" has been instrumental in stopping a number of terrorist acts, though no one can tell us any of the particulars, all of which are classified.

So, what is "meta-data"?

One of my majors at Dartmouth College in the '70s was philosophy. As part of that major, I probably took a course in "metaphysics," though I can't remember doing so. In any case, it was assuredly part of the core curriculum of courses offered to philosophy majors; then, as now, Dartmouth called it one of the "systematic fields of philosophy."

Unfortunately, the field is very hard to define. The term literally means "after" (meta) "physics" or the "physical." According to Aristotle, it was what you studied after you mastered the sciences. I suppose the idea was that one had to be first firmly rooted in (and knowledgeable of) reality before tackling the abstract universe of first principles -- the "why is there something rather than nothing?" or "what's it all about, Alfie?" stuff of late nights in Greenwich Village bars. The reality, however, is that reality is often the last thing touched upon in those late night rap sessions ...

Or in those college seminars on "metaphysics."

Which is more or less the same thing now going on with "meta-data."

Like the philosopher's world of metaphysics, the NSA's world of meta-data clothes reality in an abstract lingo that suggests nothing all that personal -- or real -- is being examined. In fact, the word itself has become part of the government's public defense. As Sen. Feinstein put it, "This is just meta-data, there is no content involved."

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

There is nothing abstract about meta-data. It is data that discloses the time, length and place of individual communications, the participants respective phone or digital IDs, and their respective locations. Companies have become enamored of the profit-making potential inherent in such data because, as the Guardian recently explained, it has "revelatory power." Quoting U. Penn. researcher Matt Blaze, the paper continued, "Meta -data is our context. [It] can reveal far more about us -- both individually and as groups -- than the words we speak. Context yields insights into who we are and the implicit, hidden relationships between us. A complete set of all the calling records for an entire country is ... a record not just of how the phone is used, but, coupled with powerful software, of our importance to each other, our interests, values and the various roles we play."

The government asserts it needs and gets individual warrants from the FISA court every time it lifts the veil and examines the contents of any actual communication. It also asserts it does this solely to combat terrorism.

But who knows?

The proof is as classified as the program Edward Snowden illegally disclosed two weeks ago.

We are not just being asked to trust the government here. We are being asked to trust the government now and in the foreseeable future.

We are also being asked to assume that no government -- either now or in the future -- will do with this information what all government has eventually done with information like it in the past, namely, look at it -- either at the "meta" or content level -- and, at some point, abuse it. This is what the CIA did with COINTELPRO before the Church committee blew the lid off its clandestine operations in the '70s. It is what J. Edgar Hoover -- who was especially good at blackmailing politicians and other personal enemies with knowledge of their secret relationships -- did for years as head of the FBI.

It not only can happen again.

It will.

And when it does, there will be nothing abstract, or impersonal or unreal about ...