What Is 'Metadata'? And How Does eDiscovery Software Use It to Win Cases for Small Law Firms like Yours?

25 October 2017 by Anith Mathai general new-features review

Metadata is ‘data about data,’ and all computer files have it. But what does that mean? Why is it such a big deal? And how is it relevant to an attorney like you? This post explains all.

What is metadata?

When you create a document on your computer, the app you’re using (e.g. Microsoft Word) records a whole bunch of information about it. Things like who created it, when they created it, when it was last opened, etc. This ‘data about data’ (i.e. metadata) is a digital footprint which tracks the history of the document. All files have metadata embedded in them, but you won’t see it unless you know where to look.

How much metadata is there?

There are hundreds of different types of metadata. Some of them are easy to find–e.g. the author of a document, how much time was spent editing the document, and where it’s stored. And some of them are hard to find unless you have technical skills–e.g. the history of all edits to a document.

Metadata for word processing documents.

Here’s a sample of a Microsoft Word document’s metadata:

  • Filename and size.
  • When (date and time) the file was created. And who created it.
  • When (date and time) it was last modified. And who modified it.
  • How many times and when it has been accessed, changed, or altered.
  • Where it’s stored on the hard drive or computer network. And (occasionally) the GPS location of where it was created.

Check out some of the metadata for your Microsoft Word files.

  • In Windows, right-click a Word file and then click ‘Properties.’
  • Click the ‘Summary’ tab.
  • Click ‘Advanced options.’ Here you’ll see a lot of the file’s metadata.

Metadata for emails.

Here’s some email metadata:

  • Who created the email, and when it was created.
  • When it was sent.
  • Whom it was sent to (‘cc’ and ‘bcc’), when they received it, and whether they read it.

You can see this metadata even if you weren’t the one sending or receiving the email.

How does metadata help attorneys?

Metadata gives context to computer files. With paper documents, you can ask people questions like, “Where did you get this?,”“Who wrote it?,” and “Whom did you send this to?” But with electronic data whom do you ask? Well, metadata gives you a digital ‘paper trail’ with more information than you’d get for any paper document.

Here are examples of metadata at work:

  • Providing an alibi: Your client says she was home at 8 PM. So, you check the metadata of a text message she sent. It confirms that she sent the message at 8:05 PM. And it’s even logged the phone’s GPS location at the time she sent the message. It shows she was indeed at home.
  • Catching fraud: A partner at a large law firm sends your client a document he’s worked on. Out of curiosity she checks the document’s metadata and finds that it was an associate–not the partner–who worked on the document. And yet she was billed at a partner’s rate. The metadata catches the partner red handed.
  • Proving unfair termination: Your client was fired by her boss but says that he’d been influenced by an email with false accusations from a co-worker. The boss claims he got the email after he fired your client, so it didn’t influence his decision. But you review the metadata and find that he’d indeed received and read the email before he fired your client.
  • Discovering who stole trade secrets: Andrew claims that he had access to a computer with company secrets, but didn’t copy and leak the information to a competitor. However, when you look at the computer’s file system metadata, you find something interesting. Andrew accessed the computer at 15:33 and logged off at 16:05. But at 15:42 a flash drive was plugged into the computer and was unplugged at 15:58. And some files were transferred. That’s more than enough circumstantial evidence on which to start building a case.

Metadata is everywhere but is often hard to find. That’s where your eDiscovery software helps.

It extracts hundreds of metadata fields from documents automatically, as you upload them. For example, eDiscovery software like GoldFynch uses metadata to find you emails when you’ve forgotten the date you sent them.

Suppose you need to find an email you sent about the IT department, sometime after July 2011. GoldFynch will find all emails with the keywords ‘IT department’ in them and then will check their metadata for the ones with a ‘sent’ date after July 2011. And there you have your email.

But metadata is fragile.

It’s quite easy to change metadata by mistake. For example, you’ll change the ‘last accessed’ metadata date if you:

  • Open a file
  • Copy a file to another computer
  • Burn a file to CD or DVD
  • Forward an email

In fact, you can modify hundreds of files just by booting up a computer that has evidence on it. This can be a problem if you’re trying to prove when someone last accessed a privileged document.

So, how do you protect metadata for eDiscovery?

Here what you can do to keep metadata safe:

  • Find out which metadata fields to preserve for eDiscovery. You can ask opposing counsel or the court for this.
  • Keep electronic files in their ‘native’ format. So, keep emails as emails and Word documents as Word documents. If you print out emails, you’ll lose metadata. The same goes for printing and then scanning documents into PDFs. So, if opposing counsel gives you TIFF (tag image file format) files or PDFs that were originally in other formats, ask for those originals too.
  • Make copies of files you’re going to transfer. So you have a backup if you lose their metadata. And don’t email documents if you need their metadata intact. Instead, ZIP the documents and transfer them using secure FTP. Or copy them using specialized software like RoboCopy. Remember to keep a simple tracking log (for example, a Microsoft Excel document) to track the transfer and keep the chain of custody intact.
  • Use FTK Imager to open and preview eDiscovery files. It protects their metadata.
  • Hire forensic experts to help. They have software (e.g. ‘forensic image files’) and hardware (e.g. ‘write blockers’) to protect metadata when you’re accessing files.
  • Document everything you’ve done to preserve metadata. This will protect you if opposing counsel accuses you of ‘spoilation’ of metadata.

Need help using metadata for eDiscovery? Try GoldFynch.

GoldFynch is eDiscovery software designed for small law firms like yours. And it’ll help you tap into email metadata simply and quickly. Best of all, you’ll get a free starter case! So, test it without having to pay anything.

GoldFynch is cool for other reasons too!

  • You don’t have to install anything. It runs off the internet, and you use it through your web browser. So you can start working immediately. No sales calls or emails. And no credit card.
  • It’s easy to use. It’s highly intuitive, and you’ll learn how to use it in minutes.
  • It lets you do eDiscovery essentials, like tagging files and redacting privileged information. ‘Producing’ files takes just a few clicks.
  • Most importantly, it’s affordable. Just $10 a month for a basic case. That’s $25 less–every month–than the nearest comparable software. And hundreds of dollars cheaper than many others.

Want to learn more about GoldFynch?

For more about eDiscovery for small law firms, check out these articles.