Ethical and Legal Issues of Metadata

Metadata is a set of facts about a data set. These facts include description of who created, accessed, collected or modified the data. Metadata describes how and when these actions were taken. How the data is formatted and other descriptive and defining information is included in metadata. This data is commonly associated with word processing documents like Microsoft Word.

This data is included in photos, word processing files, and more. 

According to Internet For Lawyers, metadata for a document can be seen by going to File==> Properties==> and selecting one of five choices that are offered by the dialog box: The choices are General, Summary, Statistics, Contents and Custom. In recent years, several advanced tools have been developed for deleting or “scrubbing” metadata. Make Use Of has tips for removing metadata from photos.

Legal situations are where metadata has caused the most interest. Knowing such information can affect the outcome a criminal or civil case. Being able to remove or conceal such data is an important factor.

In the context of the law, metadata is important to cases where one side or the other argues whether the data is “discoverable” or whether the possessor can be required to produce it. In other words, the question is whether metadata is to be considered a part of a “document”. But in some cases, even the software that produced the data set is arguably included as metadata. In earlier cases, according to The Yale Law Journal Online, one side or the other produced the documents, but withheld the metadata, sometimes destroying it. The courts were not happy with this action. Currently, judges have more discretion and understanding about the importance of metadata and are charged with exercising good judgement and management of the situations.

In some legal situations, it is considered to be unethical for a lawyer to examine metadata that the opposing counsel failed to remove or “scrub” from submitted documents. In other situations, scrubbing the data is considered to be the responsibility of the sending counsel.

In other ethical situations, metadata can pose a national security risk. The State Bar of Wisconsin recounts that in 1983, a British dossier on Iraq’s security infrastructure was released. Metadata from the document revealed that the British intelligence agency did not create the information, but pulled from the work of others, including a graduate student in the U.S. The metadata identified the individuals and their location.

The British dossier situation illustrates the issues of informed consent, unlawful release of privileged or personal information, privacy violations and more ethical problems.

In summary, while most of the discussion about metadata has been going on in the legal area, there are other ethical and legal pitfalls to the collection and use of a person’s metadata, including employers who pry into privileged and personal information from work that was done on an employee’s home computer. Finally, there are concerns about intrusions by internet hackers, plagiarists, private investigators, and stalkers.