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Is metadata personal data?

| Written by Altlaw

Metadata can be hugely beneficial for legal professionals looking to understand details, such as when a file was created, where a photo was taken or when a document was last modified.

It’s vital for those involved in litigation to understand what metadata is and how to handle and use it effectively. In this blog post, we’ll define metadata, explore whether metadata can be labelled personal data and discuss its implication on litigation.

Defining metadata

Metadata is often referred to as data that describes other data. It’s structured data that helps sort information by different attributes.

Metadata summarises basic information about data which can make it easier to find and use. By having the ability to search for data by a specific element, the process of locating documents becomes more straightforward.

For example, metadata allows you to organise documents by creation date, modified date and file name.

As well as document files, metadata is used in:

  • Images
  • Videos
  • Audio files
  • Web pages
  • Computer files
  • Spreadsheets

Metadata on web pages can be important in describing what the page contains and linking keywords to its content. It plays a role in the content displayed by search engine results pages (SERPs), meaning the accuracy of a page’s metadata can influence whether or not a user visits the page.

Metadata is created every time a document, information asset or file is made, modified or deleted. It helps us understand data's nature, structure and context, allowing for simple location and retrieval.


The implications of GDPR

Digital content we search and interact with daily contains a huge amount of metadata. The Data Protection Act 2018 sees the implementation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and defines an identifiable person as someone who can be either directly or indirectly identified by their name, identification number or geolocation.

This data could be embedded within the metadata of anything you share online. Although this information wouldn’t be visible to the human eye, it could be extracted and read, which could lead to consequences.

Almost all digital images are embedded with geolocation data, which could be a trap businesses fall into when sharing photos online, whether on a website or social media.

Although the geolocation data wouldn’t be immediately visible, it would be possible for these images to be saved and have the metadata extracted from them. Businesses are often unaware of ways that sensitive metadata can be shared, so it’s vital to understand how you can comply with regulations.


Types of metadata that websites can collect

Every website user leaves a ‘digital footprint’ as they generate metadata while browsing the internet, viewing content or creating posts.

Metadata is collected from browsers by tracking systems which are embedded within websites. This is then transmitted to data partners and used to predict an individual user’s interests and preferences through an algorithm.

Although generally, users don’t like to be tracked, predictions state that the opt-out rate for mobile app tracking will decline from 85% in 2021 to 60% in 2023. This is mainly due to the experience consumers have with untargeted ads, with many preferring personalised advertising.

So, what types of metadata can websites collect?

  • Pages visited
  • Time spent on each page
  • Items clicked
  • Objects hovered over
  • Ads clicked

Website metadata doesn’t describe the individual user, but it does describe what the user has interacted with on the page. With the opt-out rates set to drop and more people set to be tracked, it’s important to be aware of how metadata can impact litigation.

What implications can metadata have on litigation?

Metadata can play a huge role in modern cases, with many cases now being data-led. Metadata attaches to electronically stored information (ESI), which can be useful for legal professionals dealing with data.

It can describe when a call was made, the subject of an email or the geolocation of where a photograph was taken.

By collating the digital footprint that relevant data leaves behind, legal professionals can use data to form a case. 

Metadata allows you to look deeper than the surface-level content a document provides. They can see when it was created, who created it and how many times it’s been modified.

This information can be crucial for tools which filter, sort and prioritise ESI before producing it. However, legal professionals must be careful when handling documents or files. Metadata is very sensitive and can be altered easily; opening a document will alter its last ‘accessed’ date and copying a file can change the ‘creation’ date to the date it was copied.

So, which types of metadata are important in litigation?

  • System metadata — Automatically generated by a computer system, such as document author, creation date or modification date
  • Substantive metadata — Data reflecting substantive changes to a document made by the user, such as tracked changes or comments
  • Embedded metadata — Data in a file which isn’t visible to the naked eye, such as formulae in Excel spreadsheets

While some metadata is easily accessible, extracting some forms can require extra tools such as data forensics or eDiscovery software.


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