The Harris County Law Library's Legal Tech Institute offers Hands-on Legal Tech Training every Thursday at 2:00 pm. Our most popular class, MS Word for Legal Work, provides an overview of basic, intermediate, and advanced features in Microsoft Word. Some of these features are familiar to regular users of the Microsoft Office Suite, but one of the tasks, which we demonstrate in the Go Pro section of our presentation, often takes people by surprise. That task is Document Inspection and specifically the removal of metadata, a critical step before sharing a legal document with another party. The metadata consists of all the hidden information attached to or found within your document. It may expose details that you don't wish to reveal to another party, including the date, time, and author of a document, the names of everyone who has made revisions or comments to the document, and potentially even alternate versions of the content. Stripping this data may be very important, and doing so is easy. Simply click on File, open the Info menu, and locate the Inspect Document button. There you will find options for quickly and easily removing the hidden details and protecting the confidentiality of your work.
Microsoft makes it easy to identify and remove metadata from documents, spreadsheets, and other work products created with applications in the MS Office Suite, but what about other types of files, including image files? Photographs taken with your cell phone or digital camera contain hidden data as well, including the identity of the device used to take the photo, the date and time when the photo was taken, and the GPS coordinates that identify the exact geographic location where the photo was snapped.
If you'd like to find the metadata tags associated with a particular image, there's an app for that. EXIFViewer and Photo Investigator are two free apps for the iPhone, and similar apps are available for Android devices. Take a look at the screenshots below to see examples of the kinds of data you might discover, along with the options provided for either removing or editing the EXIF data or for captioning your photos. Depending on the app, you can also share a photo with or without the EXIF data attached. Keep in mind that not all images will be tagged with GPS coordinates, one of the potentially key pieces of evidence you may wish to identify, but when geographic data does exist, it may be just the information you need to pinpoint a person or event at a specific site. Have a look:
If you doubt the usefulness of this information, consider the story of John McAfee, developer of the popular McAfee antivirus software. McAfee, who had left the United States to spend his retirement years (and his sizable fortune) in Belize, became a person of interest in a bizarre crime, the murder of his neighbor and fellow expatriate, Gregory Faull. In an effort to evade authorities, McAfee escaped to Guatemala where reporters from Vice.com caught up with him. The reporters snapped a photo of Mr. McAfee and published it on their website but failed to strip the geodata. This oversight lead to his eventual arrest and deportation back to the United States after political asylum in Guatemala was denied.
Your next case may not involve an eccentric billionaire on the lam in Central America, but the outcome might still depend on your ability to find the EXIF data embedded in a key photograph. Caution your client, whether fugitive or philanderer, about the data's potential to expose his or her behavior, and then prepare an effective defense for his or her whereabouts at a specific point in time. Look for an app that shows you these potential "smoking guns" and put your new tech knowledge to work!