Remove Metadata from Documents to Ensure Privacy

privacy please 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

Comments 4

  1. Before you get too big on suggesting modification or removal of metadata, you should consider the potential legal implications of those actions:

    http://bit.ly/bhoZdv this goes way back to late 2008

    http://bit.ly/agqZEy this, from 2007 explains how the changes to the FRCP explains metadata is discoverable

    http://bit.ly/aZ0Heh this one goes all the way back to 2006

    If during a legal action its determined that by policy or practice you were employing something like Document Inspector for the purposes of altering or deleting metadata, well, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes.

  2. Larry,

    These are great articles. Thanks for sharing them. It looks like the law says that metadata is discoverable, but doesn't address if you remove it prior to a discovery. If I make it a policy to remove that information consistently before sharing with anyone, then that may be taken as normal procedure. This seems similar to document retention schedules. If an organization can show that they regularly destroy old documents per policy, then they can't be forced to produce those. I am neither an attorney nor a records management specialist, so I will leave it to others to comment.

  3. Ron-

    True to a degree changes in the FRCP say that if you have a reason to expect there MAY BE a legal action pending you can't destroy or alter documents, so if you're changing metadata and you can't show that you weren't aware there was a pending or 'potential' action, then you have big problems. The same thing is true about retention schedules and physical format records… if you destroy them AFTER you're aware of a potential or pending legal action, even if they have met their assigned retention period. you have big problems.

    If however you elect to capture LESS metadata to begin with, then nothing has to be deleted… only problem is your records aren't described well enough to be able to find or use them!

    I'm not an attorney either, but I've been involved in e-discovery and have participated in mock trials before… and the changes to the FRCP, along with numerous cases of spoliation and failure to take sufficient actions to avoid improper destruction of records indicate you are better off to err on the side of caution.

    Larry

  4. Ron-

    True to a degree changes in the FRCP say that if you have a reason to expect there MAY BE a legal action pending you can't destroy or alter documents, so if you're changing metadata and you can't show that you weren't aware there was a pending or 'potential' action, then you have big problems. The same thing is true about retention schedules and physical format records… if you destroy them AFTER you're aware of a potential or pending legal action, even if they have met their assigned retention period. you have big problems.

    If however you elect to capture LESS metadata to begin with, then nothing has to be deleted… only problem is your records aren't described well enough to be able to find or use them!

    I'm not an attorney either, but I've been involved in e-discovery and have participated in mock trials before… and the changes to the FRCP, along with numerous cases of spoliation and failure to take sufficient actions to avoid improper destruction of records indicate you are better off to err on the side of caution.

    Larry

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