It hardly ranks in the annals of “gotcha!” but right-wing blogs were buzzing for at least a few days last week when an unsigned Microsoft Word document was circulated by the Democratic National Committee.
The memo referred to the “anti-civil rights and anti-immigrant rulings” of Samuel A. Alito Jr., the federal appeals court judge who has been nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bush.
The stern criticisms of Judge Alito rubbed some commentators the wrong way (Chris Matthews of MSNBC called it “disgusting” last Monday). But whatever the memo’s rhetorical pitch, right-leaning bloggers revealed that it contained a much more universal, if unintended, message: It pays to mind your metadata.
Technically, metadata is sort of the DNA of documents created with modern word-processing software. By default, it is automatically saved into the deep structure of a file, hidden from view, with information that can hint at authorship, times and dates of revisions (along with names of editors) and other tidbits that, while perhaps useful to those creating the document, might be better left unseen by the wider world.
(If you use Microsoft Word, open a document, go to the File menu and choose Properties. You should see some metadata. Third-party programs are available that will crack open even more.)
According to some technologists, including Dennis M. Kennedy, a lawyer and consultant based in St. Louis, (denniskennedy.com), metadata might include other bits of information like notes and questions rendered as “comments” within a document (“need to be more specific here,” for example, or in the case of my editors, “eh??”), or the deletions and insertions logged by such features as “track changes” in Microsoft Word.
“If you take the time to educate yourself a little and know the issues,” Kennedy said, “you can avoid problems pretty easily.”