The buzzword 'metadata' has been thrown around in the
political realms recently, but very few have an in-depth
understanding of what it is and what it can do. Even the
government's own spokesman Mr George Brandis famously struggled
to explain it in an interview on Sky News (see link at the
Let us not forget the important role metadata played in
combination with the infamous bottle of Grange that caused the
demise of former NSW Premier Mr Barry O'Farrell. A key piece of
ICAC's evidence was the phone call metadata proving that
conversations between Mr Barry O'Farrell and Mr Nicholas Di
Girolamo took place on specific dates. Although ICAC has no idea
what the content of the calls were in their exchange of phone calls
in early 2011, Mr O'Farrell's inability to explain why they
took place, and together with the later revealed handwritten thank
you note, ended his political career in spectacular fashion.
But now let's take a step back to the origins of the word.
Meta is a Greek prefix meaning 'after' or 'beyond'
and data is the plural form of the Latin datum which meant
'(thing) given'. The word data later evolved in the English
language to mean "transmittable and storable computer
information". So combining the two, it would mean something
like information beyond the information. Simple, right? Or would
you prefer Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's metaphor of
"metadata is the material on the front of the envelope"
and not the content itself? The truth is there is no one set
definition of metadata, it could potentially mean different things
depending on the context.
In a forensic investigation context, Metadata would frequently
be referred as the information that sits behind a particular
electronic document. For example, in a typical Word document this
includes information about its file size, the document's
author, who last modified it and when. This kind of information is
stored within the Word file itself. Furthermore, information such
as file system and operating system logs often record events such
as file deletion, file access, file copy or transmission.
This information is potentially very useful in the context of
litigation. Consider a hypothetical intellectual property theft
case. A senior management personnel decides to take a product's
blueprint to a competing company for his personal gain.
Consider the following scenario: after some arguments with the
CEO, John Smith, the chief design engineer decides to leave his
current firm, Alpha Pty Ltd to join a competitor, Beta Pty Ltd. He
also decides that the design of the new revolutionary widget for
which he had been working months on end was solely his efforts and
therefore, he will take it with him to Beta. He transfers File A to
his personal USB, USB #001. John changes the file name to File B on
his home Mac computer in an attempt to cover his tracks. Lastly, he
copies File B on a Beta company computer and presents it as a new
project. Alpha is currently seeking to press charges for misuse of
confidential information. How can metadata help? As shown in the
diagram below, there are multiple instances in which an electronic
trail of evidence is created.
As seen in the above diagram, the metadata can provide useful
evidence of which devices were involved in File A's journey to
Computer C, even if the filename has been copied, deleted or
changed on multiple occasions. In forensic science, this principle
is known as Locard's exchange principle ("Every contact
leaves a trace"). Applying this principle to this scenario,
every time the file is accessed or modified, a record is
potentially created in the file, the USB drive, or the computer,
thereby leaving an electronic trail of evidence. Moreover, metadata
is discoverable in Court and could potentially become incriminating
With the world increasingly being more connected through
cyberspace and electronic devices, it is important for people to
understand what metadata is and how it's used, particularly in
the area of investigations and litigation. Metadata can be a
powerful tool to prove a series of chronological events and a
better understanding of it will lead to more concrete and
Nigel Carson, partner of our Forensic Technology practice, deals
with metadata in his everyday work. Recently, he has also presented
to various firms to aid their understanding of metadata and its
uses. If you are interested in this topic, please feel free to
contact Nigel at email@example.com
to arrange a time.
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