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THE METADATA PROBLEM
Briefly, Metadata is simply data that describes other data. Specifically, Metadata is information that remains in an electronic document, such as the document's author(s), recipients, file properties, and especially troubling in some situations, the history of all prior revisions. It exists because of intentional design features in current computer software. If not monitored properly, Metadata can disclose information about the document that was not intended to be transmitted or shared. Although Metadata is most commonly found in documents created in Microsoft Word (and Microsoft's Excel and PowerPoint), similar problems can exist with WordPerfect documents and even PDF files.
PDF (Portable Document Format) is the only format used by the Court's CM/ECF System. The Clerk's Office is recommending creating PDF files natively (without scanning), which produces a smaller file and a crisper image of the document. We believe strongly that the native PDF documents are the better choice for filing papers with the Court.
In the past, there has been a perception that PDF documents were secure and could not be edited. This conclusion arose for two reasons. First, a PDF file was traditionally regarded as a "picture" of a document and therefore impenetrable. Second, in the past, many computer users had only the free Adobe Acrobat Reader, which basically permitted a user to read a PDF file. Only limited edits are possible using Acrobat Reader, primarily to documents set up as forms.
In recent years, many lawyers (as well as the entire Judiciary) have upgraded from the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to the full version of Adobe Acrobat. The newer versions of the full Acrobat program are designed to make it easier for users to work collaboratively on PDF documents. The recipient of a PDF document, who has a newer Acrobat program, can edit the text of the document much as if it were a Word or WordPerfect file. The recipient also can comment on the document and send the comments back to the author. The author then can decide which suggestions to accept and export those comments into the document. The full version of Adobe Acrobat also has tools that make it easy to redact portions of the text of a PDF file by "blacking out" provisions of the document.
PDF documents are not necessarily secure if you leave Metadata behind in the document for others to view.
The ability to edit and work collaboratively on PDF documents can therefore reveal the document’s information to recipients with Adobe Acrobat. One of the settings in some versions of the full version of Acrobat, when checked, attaches the Word source file to the Adobe PDF document. If the Word file contains Metadata, that information will go along with the PDF file. Another setting allows someone working on the PDF file to "hide" comments made to the PDF. In either of these instances, a recipient of the PDF file with the full version of Acrobat may be able to view hidden information. The point is that if you use the full Acrobat program to create, edit or send PDF files, it is important to understand the PDF settings and to check periodically which settings are activated.
While the normal method used to prohibit unrestricted access to Metadata is to change the security settings so that the PDF document cannot be printed or edited without a password, the CM/ECF System will not accept any document with password encryption enabled.
Regardless of the application used, it is important to understand your application settings, and to check periodically that you are creating published documents that are free of any Metadata. Users redacting text in a PDF document should not use Acrobat tools to "black out" portions of a document when their intent is that the recipients not see the redacted information. Recipients with the full version of Acrobat are able to remove the "black out" and view the redacted text.
The bottom line on this is that everyone needs to understand how properly to create, edit, and distribute electronic documents, the Metadata risks involved, the procedures for eliminating unwanted Metadata, and the steps to secure electronic documents. If you use the full version of Adobe Acrobat, please familiarize yourself with how to create a PDF file that is free of Metadata. You also should understand the features of the programs you use, their conversion and security settings and check periodically which ones are activated. We urge you to discuss this subject with your organization's Information Services staff.
Last modified October 14, 2011