By Sofia Thomas
I figured, what with my blog name, it’d be a crying shame if I didn’t talk about metadata for this month’s blog post. You know, a girl has to live up to her name! Before we delve into metadata and the potential privacy concerns that go along with it, it should be defined. Simply put, metadata is “data about data.” To expand on that, metadata is “the information we create, store, and share to describe things.” Metadata is literally everywhere, and that is amazing.
I remember signing up for a photojournalism course during my undergraduate years. I have always loved photography, but that course further cemented my love for the subject. I was fascinated when I found out more about cameras, and how they worked, and absolutely enthralled when the professor explained (the very basics of) metadata to us. The camera captured everything, and when I uploaded an image to my laptop, I would be able to go back and see my shutter speed, the make and model of my camera, the date, and so much more. And to think that for years, I’d had no idea. It’s not just digital cameras, either. Smartphones capture the same data when taking a photograph or video, and can even capture your precise location. Scary to think about, but also incredibly fascinating. I’ve uploaded my photos to Google Photos, and I can go back to any given photo or video, and Google can tell me my latitude and longitude and the date and time I took the photo, as well as what model phone I was using, and so much more.
So uploading photos to Google Photos helps preserve metadata, but what about uploading photos to a social media site, such as Facebook or Instagram, and then downloading them again at a later date? What happens to the metadata in that case? As it turns out, metadata is lost and/or corrupted:
“Once the file had been uploaded to and then downloaded from social media, approximately 203 metadata elements were lost, included [sic] date, color, creation-tool information, camera data, change and software history. It can be argued that removing some of this metadata would help keep user information private, but certain metadata should be retained, such as change and software history. These metadata make it easier to differentiate fabricated images from authentic images and to know which modifications have been made to a file. For preservation purposes, the missing metadata is what may be needed to provide authenticity.”
What exactly does that mean, providing authenticity? Shouldn’t you be able to simply look at the metadata of a photo and prove if it’s been manipulated or something? Does it matter, really, if some of the information is missing? Well, yes. It does. Photos get manipulated all the time, and passed along as if they were real, and completely unedited. Hart’s article talks about the photo of a soldier who “is protecting innocent civilians” and how it has been edited to make it look as if he’s reacting with hostility to the civilians.
“Images like this circulate through media of all types, and although the exchangeable image file format (EXIF) metadata may not identify what has been done to the image, it would eliminate any doubt that the image has been modified. Unfortunately, these data are not made available. Making users aware of this vulnerability may improve detection of file manipulation at the time of ingest to better ensure only accurate and authentic material is being considered for preservation.”
Metadata is vastly important, and helps us showcase what is real, and what has been tampered with. Leaving out metadata, or carefully making sure that metadata isn’t available ensures that the veracity of a digital object cannot be trusted. So sure, Google Photos and your smartphone working in tandem to capture every single detail of a photo may seem like a huge breach of privacy, but it also shows that the images are true, and unaltered.
- Hart, T. R., & de Vries, D. (2017). Metadata Provenance and Vulnerability. Information Technology & Libraries, 36(4), 24–33. https://doi-org.libdata.lib.ua.edu/10.6017/ital.v36i4.10146
- Riley, J. (2017). Understanding metadata. Washington DC, United States: National Information Standards Organization (http://www. niso. org/publications/press/UnderstandingMetadata. pdf).
 Hart, T. R., & de Vries, D. (2017). Metadata Provenance and Vulnerability. Information Technology & Libraries, 36(4), 24–33. https://doi-org.libdata.lib.ua.edu/10.6017/ital.v36i4.10146