Metadata removal, also called “scrubbing” or “sanitizing” documents helps prevent involuntary disclosure of confidential client information in electronic files.
Why remove metadata? Duty to clients
Attorneys have a duty to prevent disclosure of confidential information, and to prevent disclosure of information that “could reasonably lead to the discovery” of confidential information (see Comment 4 to Rule 1.6). Metadata is data attached to an electronic file that’s not viewable just from opening the file. Digital photos, for instance, can carry metadata about the camera used, exposure settings, and even the exact time and location where the picture was taken.
Other examples of metadata include:
- the file’s author,
- date created and modified,
- the name of the computer on which it was created, and
- version history.
Sometimes, metadata includes confidential information, or at least information you’d prefer not to expose. As technology changes, what constitutes reasonable measures in protecting confidential information changes, too. The more widespread the practice of metadata removal, the more likely it is that an attorney who fails to address the risks of sending an un-scrubbed document is acting unreasonably. Using a simple tool to scrub batches of files before they go out the door can help limit your liability. One batch removal tool that’s been recommended to me is Digital Confidence’s Batch Purifier. Batch Purifier has a relatively outdated interface, but it can perform metadata removal tasks from all kinds of files at one time. Another batch metadata removal application I found (but have not tried), which is aimed at lawyers, is iScrub.
Other benefits of metadata removal
Besides the ethical obligation to protect confidential information related to client representation, there are practical benefits to metadata removal. One benefit is saving yourself from embarrassment. One common example goes like this: you’ve been pushing hard in a settlement negotiation and the other side is starting to move. Once you’re close to the final deal, you send over the draft agreement for their review. Knowing there will be changes, you send an editable Word document. Smarty-pants opposing counsel opens the document, clicks on the Review tab, and sets the Tracking to “Original Showing Markup.” You’ve just given the other side access to changes you’ve made in the document along the way, which, if you’ve amended the settlement amount as negotiations have progressed, very well might reveal your reservation price. Now you’ve got egg on your face, and might have materially disadvantaged your client’s bargaining position.
Sometimes metadata removal just helps avoid confusion on the recipient’s end: you might not want your client to misconstrue the document author that’s labeled as “Nick,” when your name is Joe, but you were using Nick’s template file to create the doc.
Finally, there’s the obvious time-saving benefit of using software that can process multiple files and file formats at once. You can probably imagine several scenarios where it would be more convenient to collect all the files and then scrub them all at once.
A very important caveat here: use your brain and think twice about scrubbing or sanitizing documents if metadata removal might be construed as spoliation!
How to remove metadata?
There are ways to manually remove metadata from files in Windows and Office documents (and for Mac as well), but that can be a cumbersome task. What if you want to scrub multiple files at once? There are free apps available to sanitize image files in batches. Batch Purifier is the only program I’ve found that will process multiple file types at one time, although the program is for Windows only and, as I noted above, has a somewhat clunky interface.
Acrobat (the full version, not the free Adobe Reader) has handy tools for removing metadata from your PDFs. And note that Batch Purifier doesn’t work to scrub metadata from a PDF that’s created in Acrobat Pro, so be sure to use Acrobat’s built in metadata removal tools if you’re using Acrobat when making or editing PDFs.
Disclaimer: I’ve never used Batch Purifier or any of Digital Confidence’s other products in legal practice. Because I’m not yet a lawyer. But it’s a cool tool and I’ve heard of at least one law school legal clinic using it for processing lots of docs at once. You decide if that’s reasonable.