What Is Metadata And Why Is It So Dangerous?

by : Michael Goldstein, Esq.

Metadata by definition is data about data. It leaves an electronic trail of all the changes to an electronic document: the edits, authors, times and dates of access and changes, as well as routing information. Meta data can tell you:

• Who said what?
• Who knew what?
• Who did what?
• How much time was spent editing the document?
• Who created the document?
• Where the document has been?
• How many times the document was edited?
• If and by whom the document has been printed?
• Private comments and prior drafts of the document

Metadata is hidden information embedded in many electronic applications, including WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. This data can contain sensitive information, which you would not want disclosed to third parties. Much of this information is invisible to routine users, is created automatically and cannot be prevented.

Even if a document is password-protected, a significant amount of metadata can be discerned even though the document itself cannot be opened. A civil litigation lawyer can use metadata as an effective cross examination tool.

Why civil litigation lawyers and accountants want to know about metadata:

Civil litigators are increasingly sending documents by e-mail during negotiations and discovery. More civil litigation lawyers are realizing the vulnerability of sharing electronic data with clients, opposing counsel and courts.

Your firm can aggressively use metadata on opposing counsel and their clients and others can use it against you. This puts your client relations in danger. By inadvertently revealing private information contained in metadata, you would breach attorney client privilege.

The most common way to protect against metadata is to not copy and paste from one document to the next. Make sure “turn off fast saves" is selected in Microsoft products. Make sure to either accept or reject all changes to a document, if “track changes are turned on." It is also a good idea once your document is complete, that it be converted into a PDF document. PDF files retain much less metadata than other document forms, especially those created by Microsoft. You can convert a document to a PDF by using either the Adobe Acrobat software, or any number of free online and stand-alone applications that can be found on the web, such as http://www.expresspdf.com/.