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What Is Metadata and How Can It Affect Your Case?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

Image metadata is what led to software pioneer John McAfee's arrest, which has led a lot of people, especially lawyers, to ask what metadata is and how it may affect litigation.

It's not an incomprehensible technology, but it is a powerful tool for finding information about digital documents and images. Unless you take the time to strip it out, there is revealing metadata on every digital file you have, including briefs and evidence photos.

You don't want to give anything away about your own case, but you also want to know how to get this information from your opponents. So it's time for a crash course in metadata.

Metadata is often described as "data about data." It's information embedded in data files that describes the contents and context of a file.

The level of specificity is different depending on the type of file and how it's created, but most will include the date and time of creation and any visual specifications.

For photographs, like the one that led authorities to John McAfee, the metadata can also include what equipment was used to the take the picture, including flash, and where in the world it was taken. Files on the Internet may also include the locations from which they were uploaded.

That all came together to lead police directly to McAfee. But it can have a more positive impact too.

Metadata is electronic information, and while it can be stripped out of documents, it must be included in evidentiary files. That means you can ask for it during e-discovery to find out more about whether documents were edited or how they were altered, if at all.

Reviewing metadata can also allow you to authenticate electronic documents, or possibly confirm your suspicions that the document isn't legitimate.

Of course, that information is a double-edged sword, since your client will have to provide it for his electronic files as well. When going over evidence, make sure to review the metadata so you aren't surprised by what the opposing party finds in your files.

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