Megadata: What happens when politicians can’t pronounce ‘metadata’

It's no secret that there can be a disconnect between the technical literacy of some lawmakers and the programs they are charged with overseeing. But the disclosures about government surveillance from documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden made a few obscure tech terms more popular on the hill.

A great example of this: "metadata." In broad terms, this refers to data that describes or provides greater context to other data. The term was largely overlooked in the congressional record in recent years, but has seen a substantial uptick in mentions thanks to the debate over the National Security's collection of bulk domestic phone records.

You can even visualize the increase in metadata mentions, as in this graphic created using the Sunlight Foundation's Capitol Words tool:


Mentions of metadata in the Congressional record, 1996-present. (Sunlight Foundation)

With the word's increasing popularity, there have also been a few pronunciation slip-ups — by far the best of which is word "megadata," which definitely sounds like it could be the name of a Transformer or Decepticon.

Over the past year, transcripts from Federal News Service suggest at least five instances of "megadata" usage on Capitol Hill over the past year. Four of those times were in hearings, with all but one coming from lawmakers. The fifth instance was a news conference by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held in the Capitol Visitor Center.

The latest megadata incident the Federal News Service caught was in a hearing about the USA Freedom Act Thursday, when it quotes Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) using the garbled term while asking a question about the NSA's phone records program.

But it's possible that some transcriptions are covering the tracks of members prone to mispronunciation — during the same hearing, a number of journalists, including Spencer Ackerman and Marcy Wheeler, tweeted about Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) making the same flub.

Note: An earlier version of this post contained some garbled language. Due to a typo in the editing process, the USA Freedom Act was called the USA Freddom Act. We regret the (humorous) error.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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