Over the past two weeks, I have lost count of the number of officials and government ministers who, when challenged about Internet surveillance by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States, try to reassure their citizens by saying that the spooks are "only" collecting metadata, not "content." Only two conclusions are possible from this: either the relevant spokespersons are unbelievably dumb or they are displaying a breathtaking contempt for their citizenry.

In a way, it doesn't matter which conclusion one draws. The fact is that, as I argued two weeks ago, the metadata is what the spooks want for the simple reason that it's machine-readable and therefore searchable. It's what makes comprehensive Internet-scale surveillance possible.

Why hasn't there been greater public outrage about the cynicism of the "only" metadata mantra?