November 21, 2012
We deal with metadata every day of our lives – often without ever realizing that we’re doing it. Metadata is simply the file attributes, geo-location tags and other items that get stuck to other data; like files and emails. For example, whenever you send an email, there is a ton of metadata that is invisible to you unless you tell your email client you want to see it. In the background, your client and the email servers that handle the mail along its route tag bits of information to the email package. Things like where it originated, what servers it is relayed through, if it has been tagged as spam or suspect, etc. Normally, metadata is harmless and in many cases even necessary. Sometimes, it becomes a major problem.
The problem was illustrated earlier this week when Oprah Winfrey tweeted that she loved her new Microsoft Surface tablet. Granted, the tweet itself wasn’t all that shocking or special; but the metadata exposed that the tweet wasn’t all it appeared to be on the … well.. surface.
In essence, the metadata stuck onto the tweet by the Twitter software Oprah used to generate the message let everyone know she had actually sent the tweet from an iPad. So the further notation that she’d bought twelve more to give as gifts was undermined by the fact that she wasn’t using one herself, and the claim of it being one of her famous “#FavoriteThings” was somewhat hollow.
In this case, the metadata was embarrassing, but (with the exception of the marketing implications for Microsoft) not harmful. In some cases, however, metadata can be far more problematic. For example, in addition to tagging tweets with the client you are using, your twitter software most likely sends along your physical location co-ordinates as well. This feature can be turned off in the client and on the twitter website, though many people forget to do so or acknowledge and allow it without realizing they’re doing it. This means that you can say you “just arrived at work” and your tweet might betray that you’re actually across town. It also means that anyone who views your tweets can track where you are and where you’ve been. Certainly not good news for those who value their privacy.
Twitter isn’t alone in having metadata that can be more problematic than most realize. Nearly all Social Media tools have geo-location available, and will tag your posts with that data unless you tell them to do otherwise. Email encodes the route that the email took between sender and receiver, along with time and date at each hop across the Internet. This can become a legal issue if you’re claiming that an email was sent on a certain date, but the metadata (in this case the header information) shows that it wasn’t. Cameras will tag photos with anything from the settings used to take the photo (commonly called EXIF data), to the date and time of the snapshot, and even location if your camera has a GPS feature. Even mobile devices can be problematic, as the carrier can track where you’re logging in from at any time. Even when the phone or mobile device’s GPS is disabled, carriers can get an approximate fix on your location by figuring out which cell towers you are transmitting to and from.
Now, this is not to say that metadata is a bad thing in and of itself. EXIF data is extremely helpful in photo editing, and phone GPS/geo-location systems can help save your life if you are in an accident or have an emergency situation. Foursquare uses metadata to identify where you are in the world, and the whole purpose of that app is to let people know where you are. Knowing what tweets, posts, and emails are replies and forwards/RT’s is extremely useful, and it’s all held in tags. Metadata also helps track spam, organize files on your hard drive, and control the spread of malware. It really is a neutral technology that can be used for good or bad purposes, depending on the situation.
Be aware that metadata exists, and question what metadata is being attached to tweets, files and anything else you do in the digital world. Turn off geo-location anywhere and for any app you don’t want reporting on your whereabouts; and ensure that your cameras, mobile devices and other gear aren’t storing (or broadcasting) data you don’t want them to tag to your photos, posts and files.
Metadata isn’t a bad thing, but it can be used for unwanted purposes. Know about it, control it, and try not to tweet about a particular tablet from a competitor’s platform.