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What is metadata? A key tool in data discovery

| Written by Altlaw

Data plays a huge role in every industry, including litigation. Alongside a good knowledge of data, legal professionals should know what metadata is and how it can benefit their eDiscovery process.

Metadata can help legal professionals generate context for a piece of electronically stored information (ESI) by providing a digital footprint. However, to make full use of metadata, you’ll need the correct tools. But what is metadata? And what purpose does it serve in everyday life, including litigation?

What is metadata?

Metadata is referred to as data that describes other data. It’s structured data which helps sort and identify the information it describes. Simple document metadata can be anything a user can search to locate a specific file, such as the file’s author, creation date or modification date.

Metadata is created any time a document or file is made, modified or deleted. It helps us understand the structure, nature and context of data, allowing for easy location and retrieval.


The different types of metadata

Metadata comes in various forms and can determine who made a file, when it was last modified, the size of the file or when it was last accessed.

There are three main types of metadata: descriptive, structural and administrative.

  • Descriptive: Adds information on who created a file, the purpose and what it includes 
  • Structural: Includes additional information on how the data elements are organised, including their relationships and structure
  • Administrative: Details the file type, origin and access rights

Alongside the three main types, we can segregate metadata into manual and automated categories.

  • Manual: Information the user has inputted themselves. Typically more useful for search and retrieval as the user has likely provided relevant information to the file
  • Automated: Refers to elementary data such as file size, file type and file creation date

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What’s the purpose of metadata? Its importance in everyday life

Metadata represents information used everywhere and by every industry. Therefore, it has many uses in an ever-growing digital world.


Digital files

Every file on your computer will contain basic metadata. This data instructs your system on how to organise the file. You can view a file’s properties on your computer for a quick look at its core information, such as its size.

You can arrange files on your computer using this information, allowing for grouping and easy location. Metadata speeds up locating relevant resources by allowing you to search for files using key terms.


Website searches

Metadata describes the properties of a webpage, allowing search engines to identify whether the page’s content is relevant to a user’s search query.

A website’s metadata can be critical in determining how successful the site is. Metadata pieces such as meta titles and meta descriptions display on search engine results pages (SERPs), enticing users to click. SERPs rely on metadata to group together similar items, so when you search for a specific keyword, the results are relevant to your search.


Social media

Metadata also has its place in social media. It’s constantly being created and utilised in the social media world.

It’s useful in situations such as sending someone a friend request on Facebook or following somebody on Twitter. You’ll see their profile image and a short user description before deciding whether you want to interact with them.



Retailers can use metadata to track consumers' habits online. Using this information, they can paint a picture of your interests and choose which products to market to you.

Internet providers and governments can also use metadata to monitor web activity. However, there are privacy laws in place and it’s vital for businesses or organisations only to gather the metadata they’re legally allowed.

Using metadata as a legal professional

Metadata plays a crucial role in litigation processes. You can take advantage of metadata to quickly locate relevant files in eDiscovery.

Electronically stored information (ESI) is a critical asset for modern investigations. According to email receiving statistics, the average user receives over 100 emails per day. Add that to someone’s text messages, media files and phone calls and you can see why metadata can be so vital — and potentially overwhelming — in litigation. Swiftly locating relevant ESI can speed up your litigation process and build your case more quickly.

One of the main benefits of metadata in litigation is its impact on the credibility of evidence. For example, if there’s a claim that a file was created on a specific day, but the metadata says otherwise, you’ll have a solid case against the claim. Metadata adds validity to your case when using ESI as evidence.

By being aware of the different forms of metadata, you’ll have a greater understanding of the types of evidence you can use to build your case.

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