Always think twice before sending or publishing any file, as it probably contains metadata you are not willing to share…

What is metadata?

The term Metadata refers to a piece of information that provides details on specific data. It generally constitutes a set of information (including technical details) on a file, often including creator, source, updates, dates, type of material and system used, location, device, software used, etc. For example, metadata can be the date and time a file was created.

Although metadata is not essential to the data it describes, it can be helpful if managed properly. Indeed, it contains information about the metadata schema, which is a hierarchical structure that describes the metadata in a given application or domain. For example, an image file may contain metadata describing where it was taken and by whom — information that cannot be extracted by simply looking at the image itself.

Metadata is an essential part of the information captured about a digital object and its associated data. It can help people find, use, and reuse content. It provides relevant information allowing you to document archives and how they relate to each other. In fact, if your records are open and accessible, they should have metadata.

Why is it important?

Data about data, or metadata, is an important component of critical information management. It provides details about how, where, and when your data was stored. However, it can be subject to privacy infringements, which may cause serious harm to your organization if left unchecked or mismanaged.

It is central because it helps you to understand and make use of your data. It allows you to find and repurpose the data once it is stored, thus increasing its value.

Metadata is important for everyone, whether it is for private or professional usage, and no matter what your role is in the place you work (public or private). Businesses or institutions with a well-established metadata strategy can improve automation and ensure that rules are followed for decisions about content.

As metadata is the information that surrounds your data, it contains details on you, your organization, your identity, and your privacy. In some cases, you do not want to have any details regarding your identity displayed in public.

In addition, metadata can be collected and used to modify or create information related to anyone. With that said, it is crucial to make sure your contact info is correct, and that it reflects the personal or professional line we concede to deliver. For example, if you share a file with a company’s contact information, the metadata in the file will include data about that company. This file can be used to look up additional information and learn more about the business.

Why does it constitute a risk?

Metadata is a critical component of data management and organization. It is what makes complex, single views of data possible to create, which are then used for reporting by end users. It helps to describe the purpose and content of specific information.

It is important to understand that metadata collection and management can have a significant impact on your privacy or on your business. The wrong materials can lead to costly losses, but the right materials can help with continuous improvement and make your processes more efficient. For example, if your business stores confidential data, there would be a metadata risk if an unauthorized third party gained access to it.

Metadata has always played a role in the business world, but with big data becoming a core competency for companies and scientists alike, it has now become even more important. The metadata spans many fields including security, legal, privacy, and quality assurance.

If your organization deals with private clients or contractors whom you might send personalized documents to, making sure those documents do not present metadata exposing critical information could be important. For example, if you often use templates or common documents, adapting the file to each interlocutor, you do not want the information on previous transactions to display on further versions.

Percepto International noticed that individuals and professionals working in all fields start to realize the importance to mitigate risks attached to the exposure of metadata. Warnings and jokes have started to spread on social media to sensitize and alert about the management of this data to avoid getting into undesired (or harmful) situations.

A tweet posted in October 2018

Management of metadata is also essential to administrations, governments, and critical infrastructures. As it constitutes a broad source of information openly displayed to the public, public bodies should create and manage a comprehensive strategy to protect their data.

In many cases, the importance of metadata can be major and can reveal information administration would be willing to hide. The world witnessed this phenomenon not later than this year in the framework of the War in Ukraine. As information warfare is used from both sides to influence public perception, metadata allows OSINT experts and individuals to verify materials exposed online.

For example, just before Russia declared war on Ukraine on February 24, metadata revealed that videos of Russian separatists calling for evacuation spread on social media were in fact prerecorded and suggested premeditation from the Russian side to justify the invasion.

A tweet posted in February 2022, before the Russian invasion

How can the risk be managed?

Getting the most out of your data can be challenging and time-consuming. What information do we really need, how can we organize it to make it easier, and where should we store it? This all requires a metadata strategy. This strategy should provide a high-level overview of how to use, create and manage metadata to improve productivity and efficiency while protecting privacy, legal, and confidentiality requirements.

The risk attached to metadata can be managed by examining the risks associated with each type of metadata and taking them on accordingly. For example, identifying the required metadata and applying access rights (if stored in an external source only) can help ensure that the content cannot be misused or accessed outside its intended purpose.

Auditing our metadata is also an effective way to monitor access and ensure that data-sharing agreements are being followed.

In addition, the risk of metadata can be managed by applying unique identifiers to sensitive data to mark them as private and only available for internal use within the organization; by carefully implementing data protection policies and protocols; or by allowing users to transform the information into a new format that minimizes the possibility of identification.

To conclude, Percepto International strongly recommends organizations and individuals to build a comprehensive metadata management strategy and the relevant methodology and tools to implement it.

Percepto International is a company specializing in strategy, influence, intelligence, and cyber, offering a unique solution for organizations to master their own perception: the Joint Special Perception Center.

OSINT team & Jonas B. Forensic Expert