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Posts on Legal Tech, Litigation, & E-Discovery

Metadata for Lawyers: What it Is and Why it Matters

June 14, 2016
Posted by Jeff Kerr

heiroglyphics-med.jpgWe're constantly hearing about metadata as it relates to eDiscovery, security, and ethics, but metadata remains a confusing topic for many, and there are many misconceptions about it. In this post, we'll provide some examples to help you better understand what metadata is all about, then clear up a few misconceptions.

What is Metadata?

Metadata is simply information about computer files and related records. Consider, for example, a Microsoft Word document on your computer. The following pieces of information about the Word document all count as metadata:

  • The date and time the file was created;
  • The amount of time you've been editing the file (Word tracks this);
  • The count of words in the file;
  • The directory / folder where the file is located;
  • The date and time the file was last modified; and
  • The author of the file (tracked by Word).

This information is useful for a variety of purposes. For example, you might want to sort the items in a directory so that the most recently-modified files are at the top. This helps you locate documents that are current projects or works-in-progress. As another example, you might want to know the created and modified date for a Word document you receive in discovery so that you can confirm the document hasn't been modified since it was originally created.

The definition of metadata above as "information about computer files and related records" is pretty loose and not very precise. That's on purpose. Trying to nail down a precise definition of metadata isn't helpful. It's not important to decide whether the name of a computer file counts as metadata or, instead, as part of the file. The same goes for tracked changes and comments. The key thing to know is not whether these items count as metadata, but that they are always useful and sometimes very relevant.

But there's one distinction that it pays to be very clear about ...

Application vs. System Metadata

metadata.pngThe distinction between application metadata and system metadata is extremely important for litigators to grasp. The difference is as follows:

  • Application metadata is included in computer files themselves. If you copy a file from one computer to another without changing the contents of the file, the application metadata will be preserved intact and unchanged.
  • System metadata is not included in computer files. Instead, the operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.) holds this metadata. With the exception of the name of a file, system metadata is not transferred when you copy a file to another computer. (If it is important to produce or transfer system metadata, it is typically copied to a load file.)

The best way to grasp this distinction is to inspect metadata in some of your own files. You can view system metadata in Explorer (Windows) or Finder (Mac), and you can view application metadata by opening files in the applications you used to create them. 

Common Misconceptions

Metadata is mostly useless information ...

Not true. Metadata often counts as substantive evidence. For example, comments in a Word document can show the drafter's intent. The same with tracked changes and formulas in Excel. Further, metadata is extremely useful for authenticating evidence because it often shows the author and creation date for files. Digital photographs often include GPS coordinates. Without metadata, you'd have to authenticate Word documents and digital photographs based only on testimony. 

Metadata is expensive to produce in discovery ...

Not really. Application metadata produces itself if you produce files in native format. System metadata is a bit more difficult, but some parties will agree to forego system metadata. In any case, the probative value of metadata makes it worth some extra effort or cost.  

I need to "scrub" metadata so I don't reveal secret information to the other side ...

Please don't do this to documents that count as evidence in a case. That would constitute spoliation because it would change the evidence and destroy important data. On the other hand, some lawyers like to scrub metadata from Word documents so that the other side doesn't see metadata such as the document author or the total time spent editing. Still, it's hard to see what bad things would result from the other side seeing this information. 

Inspecting metadata in documents is unethical ...

Nope. There's nothing sneaky or unethical about carefully reviewing evidence that you receive in discovery. In fact, the only thing that could be unethical with regard to metadata is not knowing about it and how it can be used to prove your case.