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Metadata in Digital Photos — Should You Care?
By Sharon D. Nelson, Esq. and John W. Simek
We are hopeful that you are familiar with metadata, especially as it exists in e-mail messages and word processing files. If not, then a brief refresher is in order. There are a couple of different types of metadata, but most regard the common definition to be data that is stored internal to the file (you can’t see it without knowing how to look at it) and is not explicitly defined by the user. The application (e.g., word processor) inserts data within the file such as the author, last time printed, fonts used, or creation date. But what about image files such as those taken with digital cameras? What metadata do those files contain? Digital photos can be an electronic evidence heaven.
Digital image files typically contain information about the date and time the photo was taken, camera settings such as aperture and shutter speed, manufacturer make and model (and often the serial number), and, in the case of smartphones, the GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken (pure evidentiary gold in many cases). This metadata is called Exif (Exchangeable image file format) and is a standard that specifies formats for files recorded by digital cameras. None of this information is added by the user at the time of file creation. As you can see, the information could be extremely valuable, especially in litigation.
Since we’ve established that metadata does exist in digital image files, should you care? It depends on whether you are the originator or the recipient of the information. The metadata could be extremely dangerous if revealed through social media channels, especially if the user is unaware of the consequences. Here’s a real world example. Adam Savage is one of the hosts of the popular science program, MythBusters, on the Discovery Channel. He posted a picture of his automobile parked in front of his house on Twitter. Even though Adam is a “science” guy, he apparently didn’t know or simply forgot that his photo revealed more information than the fact that he drives a Toyota Land Cruiser.
Embedded in the picture was a geotag, which provided the latitude and longitude of where the photo was taken. Since he announced that “Now it’s off to work,” a burglar would know that he was not at home and the geotag would also pinpoint where he lived. Adam certainly dodged a bullet.