Saturday, June 20, 2015

PDF Metadata in the Practice of Law

Clerk Seeks Indemnification for Metadata Disclosures

The Florida Bar has released an article which states:

 "Florida Court E-Filing Authority, which manages the statewide e-filing portal, that it include a warning on the page where filers designate the type of document they are filing. That notice will read: “Warning: Removal of document metadata is the responsibility of the filer. Any document metadata remaining may become part of the public record.”
The idea is that an identity thief, fraudster, et cetra may obtain metadata from a filer failing to scrub PDF documents after redactions, and obtain SSN's, credit card numbers.
Is the Florida Court E-Filing Authority a clerk of court?  They seem to fill the role.  Or are they as "Pacer" is to the Federal Clerk?

The article goes on to note that only 37% of online filers create searchable PDF's.  Wow.
I'm curious as to how many untold gigs of storage is wasted by clerks of court.

Metadata's potential usefulness, apparently, caught the clerk, and by inferrence some judges by surprise:

Mary Cay Blanks, clerk for the Third District Court of Appeal stated: 
“All kinds of information was in that document, who the judge was, who the secretary was; everything is in there,” she said. “We realized we had to strip all of that information, which, now we do.”
While it may be a prudent practice to strip such metadata and information from an opinion or an order, shouldn't we be allowed to know these things anyway?  If I were a Plaintiff or a Defendant receiving an order, I might like to know what judge worked on it, or what secretary worked on it.  But

I bet you dollars to donuts that the Clerk of the many DCA's can tell you the exact date and time when a Appellant's lawyer got notice of Oral Argument through the logs of their webserver and unique URL's.  It's a metadata of sorts, as it is not exactly plain on the surface that this information is recorded.   I digress- if you are in a law firm, it is obvious that you should not allow metadata to be shared with opposing counsel, or the public at large.

Redaction of PDF metadata in regards to editing out personal information is a no brainer.  If you draw a box over some text in a PDF, the text remains.  If you redact, do so properly.

Apparently in Linux, if you are not running Acrobat in Wine., there is not much of a good way to redact, except Inkscape Vector Editor:

If I told you how often I looked at PDF metadata to get ideas about a case, confirm a fact, confirm a filing time, you'd probably get the wrong idea about me.  I have had two cases where I used PDF metadata to figure out what attorney or firm was responsible for the filing or the drafting of the documents.  One of the cases was widely publicized.  The other case was an attorney who continued to file documents on behalf of his client when they substituted in new counsel after a motion to disqualify.

In addition, there have been at least three other cases where I have used PDF metadata to identify a John Doe defendant, or a metadata remnant of a non-attorney created PDF was key in opening up a new strategy.  

The truth is, that advising attorneys to scrub all metadata from a PDF before filing is a little overbroad.  Is it a good practice?  Sure.  But essentially, scrubbing PDF data is kind of destroying the evidence.

As a part of my practice includes criminal defense, I suppose I could advise everyone out there to scrub their metadata.