Even if you’ve never heard the term metadata, you’re definitely familiar with it — you probably use it every single day without even realizing it. Metadata is one of those essential things that manages to hide in plain sight.
What Is Metadata?
Metadata sounds like an intimidating term, but it isn’t — metadata is just data that describes other data.
In many ways, metadata is a lot like a driver’s license or another kind of ID you’re familiar with. An official ID will usually have your date of birth, height, eye color, a picture, and other information about you. Metadata fulfills a similar role for digital files found on computers. Metadata will usually describe when a file or folder was created, when it was last modified, and other important attributes about it.
Different kinds of files will often have different metadata. Here are some specific examples of metadata that you might find attached to common files.
Examples of Metadata
The information stored as metadata varies significantly between file types. As you might imagine, pictures or images need different metadata from, say, a text document.
Photos and Video
Say you’ve been on a hiking trip using your phone’s GPS to guide you. While on your trip, you pulled out your phone and snapped a picture of an animal, weird fungus, or scenic vista. As soon as you take the picture, there is information attached to it: the camera settings, including the exposure length, ISO, F-stop, the manufacturer of the camera, the time the image was taken, and possibly the GPS coordinates of the camera when the image was captured.
Once that data has been saved, it can be used to sort and categorize the images. The photo gallery app on your phone is a good example — you can sort your images by date, and, if you had geotagging enabled, even location. Modern photo gallery apps might even attach additional data that describes the content of an image, like “Food,” “Pets,” or a specific person’s name. That is what enables you to search for images on your phone based on their content. Here’s an example of a picture that was taken with a phone’s GPS enabled:
The GPS metadata attached to the image is only as accurate as the GPS in your cellphone, but in most cases, that is accurate within a few meters.
Video files will have much of the same information, and then some extra relating to the frame rate and audio associated with the video.
Audio metadata will include the usual things, like when the file was created, but it also saves information specific to audio files. Metadata for audio files usually contains information about the artist, the album, the track number and name, as well as information about the audio itself, like the bit rate, bit depth, and sample rate.
The messages you send to other people also have associated metadata. Typical examples of metadata attached to messages are the time sent, the recipient, and information about any attachments the message might have. Some messaging apps may embed additional metadata in their messages as well, like the receipt time and emoji reactions.
A particularly important kind of metadata is the file extension. File extensions are things like PNG, TXT, DOCX, JPGs, MP3, and so on. The file extension lets Windows know what kind of data to expect and how to open the file. Without it, Windows won’t be able to automatically know how to open it, and you’ll have to manually tell it to open the file using a specific program.
RELATED: What Is A File Extension?
Note: Not all operating systems use file extensions to store file format metadata.
Miscellaneous Computer Files
Most files have metadata that is fairly specific to the file type, however, there is certain metadata that is basically universal. If you check the properties of almost any file on your PC — irrespective of the file type — you’ll see information about where the file is stored, when it was created, when it was accessed, when it was modified, and when it was created. Here is an example from Windows 10:
How Is Metadata Used by Individuals?
If you use a modern computer of any kind — including a cell phone— you use metadata regularly. Metadata is what allows you to sort your files according to type. It is what allows you to order your files by “Date Created,” “Date Modified,” or “Date Accessed.” Most modern media players allow you to list your music by bitrate or sort your movie library into categories based on resolution. Websites often contain “meta tags,” a specific type of metadata found in a website’s header that is used to describe the contents of the webpage to a search engine.
Any time you categorize files, folders, or websites, you’re relying on metadata.
How Else Is Metadata Used?
Individuals use metadata in specific ways, but what about the big picture? Every single thing you do on a computer generates data and metadata. Consider that there are tens of billions of computers in use today, including some six to seven billion smartphones — we collectively create an unfathomable amount of metadata every single day.
Targeting Advertisements and Content to Specific People
That information isn’t just discarded. A huge amount of it gets fed into sophisticated algorithms and machine learning models for analysis. What happens then really depends on who collected the metadata and what they want to learn — it can be used to analyze everything from one individual’s behavior to the largest patterns and trends in society.
The most in-your-face use cases are targeted advertising and personalized content suggestions. Ever find your social media feed loaded with advertisements related to something you looked up on your phone? Have you clicked on something unusual on YouTube only to find that your suggestions change to include more results like the thing you just clicked on? That is the algorithm at work, crunching through data and metadata associated with you to display results it “thinks” will be most likely to draw your eye and get you to click.
Using metadata to increase user engagement has some undesirable consequences. Most notably, it tends to favor content that is emotionally extreme: it either makes you feel really good, or really bad — either case is usually more stimulating than matter-of-fact content. It is a big part of what makes mindlessly scrolling on social media so incredibly addicting.
It also sometimes results in ads that people find pretty invasive — there is nothing quite like checking WebMD when you’re feeling under the weather only to find your Facebook timeline loaded with ads for medications treating a laundry list of conditions that explain your symptoms.
Note: Facebook has promised to curb some medical-related advertising, among other things, and has previously added additional restrictions to pharmaceutical advertising. We’ll see how these changes play out in the future.
Of course, even if social media policies change and these things stop showing up on your social media feeds, it doesn’t negate the fact that the information is out there and usually available to the highest bidder. Historically much of your sensitive data has been legally protected — for example, in the United States, HIPAA protects your medical information from being transmitted or used except under very specific conditions. However, few such protects exist for information that is gleaned from your metadata in most jurisdictions, though that is changing.
Metadata Is Collected for Surveillance
There are plenty of uses for metadata besides just advertising and targeting content. Among the most controversial is surveillance. Edward Snowden kicked off an enormous controversy when he provided evidence that the National Security Administration of the United States was collecting metadata from hundreds of millions of text messages every single day, among other things.
Police can do something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, using a stingray tower. Stingray towers impersonate real cellphones towers so that nearby cellular traffic gets routed through them. In this case, the sort of data captured can vary — anything transmitted unencrypted will probably be completely readable, whereas only some metadata will be exposed if the communications are encrypted.
Note: Some messaging apps (like Signal) go out of their way to minimize the amount of metadata that is unencrypted, and they say they don’t store metadata, either.
Even without the actual contents of your messages, there is more than enough information available in metadata to determine who you associate with, when you talk to them, and potentially even glean your movements.
Is Metadata a Privacy Concern?
Most every digital file out there will have some metadata associated with it — sometimes the file itself contains metadata, other times, the metadata is stored separately by the operating system. The majority of videos and images uploaded to the Internet now have their metadata stripped automatically — all major social media sites and most image hosting platforms remove metadata, and so do most modern chat apps, including Slack, Discord, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, and Telegram.
Warning: Uploading your photos to a cloud storage service will not remove metadata, so be careful sharing pictures that way. Emailing images won’t strip metadata either.
More importantly, everything you do generates metadata. Metadata is created any time you transmit or receive data over a cellular network or on the internet. This data is collected by governments and private companies alike and can be used to analyze the behavior of individuals or groups.
Considering how ubiquitous metadata is — and how revealing it can be — it is unequivocally a privacy concern.
Most smart devices collect usage information, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is only poised to expand the amount of data and metadata that is collected. Your metadata can often be as revealing as your data. Take what steps you can to protect your privacy, and err on the side of caution when you’re uploading information to the internet.
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