Metadata is data about data or something that describes your information. Its value is making it easy for you to search for information. Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines use metadata to help you find the website or piece of information that meets your needs. Content management systems and your local computer use metadata when you search for a document or email.
Most of us are familiar with basic document metadata, like the title of a document and its author, but there is a lot more information available that you may not be aware of.
Here are some examples of what a typical file might contain.
- Your name and initials
- Your company or organization name
- Your computer name
- Your hard drive or network server name
- The names of previous document authors
- Document revisions and versions
- Date created and edited
- Data and GPS location of where a picture was taken
It may be very easy to reconstruct a document’s history by simply looking at the metadata. If you are sharing this information inside your business or inside a content management system, its valuable. But if you are sharing it with an outside party or your document is involved in a legal discovery, you may be giving away more information than you should. This is also true of video, audio and picture files. Most of us focus on word processing, presentation and spreadsheet documents, but every digital camera creates a lot of metadata that’s valuable to a photographer, but may be problematic if it gets into the wrong hand. I have had more cases where someone swore they were the original authors of a document and I proved them wrong by simply looking at the document properties.
It’s not practical nor desirable to remove all metadata from a document. Some is only visible with a binary editor and much of that is important for opening and reading documents. You should remove personally identifiable information (PII) from a document, whether for legal purposes or to ensure privacy. If you are using Microsoft Office, you can use the Document Inspector to remove metadata. If you use OpenOffice, you can delete the meta.xml file while the document is open to remove metadata. For PDF documents, you can go to the Document Properties of any PDF editor and delete metadata. In Apple iWork documents, go the Inspector and look at Document to find and remove metadata. There are also numerous metadata scrubbers that you can find by doing an internet search. These are especially useful for JPG, PNG, GIF and other image formats.
Familiarize yourself with the types of metadata contained in your documents and take steps to remove it whenever necessary. You’ll be happy you did.
Photo credit hyku