Metadata is the information describing the properties of a document, sometimes referred to as the “data about data.” Metadata depicts the following information about the document:
- Date and Time Created
- Date and Time Last Modified
- Author of the Document
- Author of last changes
- Location on a computer network or GPS location where the document was created
- File size
- Means of creation of the document
Different documents and different programs give the user more or less of the information listed above. Metadata is available only in documents held in native format, meaning the document’s original file format. The average Outlook email will have metadata that shows who created the email, when the email was drafted and sent, to whom it was sent, and who received it, even if you are not the sender or receiver (for instance, when you receive native file emails from your client for production). The average Microsoft Word document will have metadata that will show you the Author, the time and date it was created, the time and date it was last modified, who modified it, and the file size.
In Microsoft Word 2007, you can find this information by going to the Office Button (“file”), then selecting “Prepare,” then “Properties.” In newer Microsoft Word versions (2010 and newer), this data is available when you select “File.” Metadata opens up on the right side of the screen with the dropdown menu options that appear on the left for File. You can see additional information by selecting “see all Properties”.
Many of the other programs work the same; select the “Properties” function of the document to show the metadata.
In image files, this information is called something different: EXIF data. EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File. Some examples of the data captured behind images are:
- Shutter speed
- Data and time the image was taken
- Type of camera used
- If flash was used
- Exposure compensation
Understanding and utilizing metadata and EXIF data are important in handling cases where eDiscovery is involved. Examples of relevant discovery applications involving the review of metadata could be:
- Establishing an Alibi: reviewing the metadata of a text message could show the date and time the text message was sent, the sender’s identity, and GPS location if Location Sharing options are on.
- Fabrication of Evidence: reviewing the metadata of an excel spreadsheet of notes or a word document could show you the created and modified date, and the identity of the Author. This could assist in proving or disproving any bad faith dealings.
- Employment Terminations: reviewing the metadata behind a salacious email from a co-worker to prove or disprove the email was reviewed by the individual prior to terminating an employee may assist in claims of discrimination or proving an unbiased termination for grounds.
- Trade Secrets: reviewing the metadata of a particular document that contains sales agreements, contract pricing, or customer contact lists could aid in determining whether or not a competitor or former employee had unauthorized access to confidential information.
Additionally, ESI databases and document management systems use metadata to organize documents. Within your firm’s database, documents are organized by date created, by sender or by date last modified. These options are possible because of metadata. The system reads the metadata and uses the information to aid in organizing the documents.
A cautionary note related to metadata: if not handled properly, the review of native files could lead to the spoliation of metadata. Inexperienced reviewers can inadvertently change the date last modified and date last accessed by merely opening the file if they are not using a protective software to view the document. This is considered spoliation. Modifying this information could be detrimental to proving or disproving a party’s claim, particularly if trying to prove a party’s last involvement with the document for alibi purposes, illegal access to confidential information, the receipt of biasing information, or other important metadata issues. Courts generally frown upon this sort of conduct as well, resulting in sanctions, unfavorable jury instructions, or in worst case scenarios, the termination of the case.
Understanding metadata – where to find it, how to preserve it, and how to interpret it, can assist you in developing a more thorough discovery process.