Take This Reasonable Precaution: Remove Metadata from Your Clients’ e-Files
Although information changed or deleted from an electronic file is no longer visible, it is not necessarily gone for good. Changes made to e-documents may be stored in the file’s metadata or background. This hidden information can include the date the document was created, comments and who made them, edits and who made them, the version, cropped images and the author. Even the name of the person who most recently saved the document may be accessible.
Removing metadata from client documents is one “reasonable precaution” recognized by state bar associations for protecting confidential client data. Nearly 20 State Bar Associations have issued opinions regarding the removal of metadata from clients’ legal documents. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct: Rule 1.6 Confidentiality of Information – Comment  Paragraph (a) prohibits a lawyer from revealing information relating to the representation of a client. This prohibition also applies to disclosures by a lawyer that do not in themselves reveal protected information but could reasonably lead to the discovery of such information by a third person.
How to Take a “Reasonable Precaution”
Taking this “reasonable precaution” requires removing the metadata and hidden information from a copy of the native format before providing that file to any party. The Microsoft Office website details all the types of information to look for and how to remove it at: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/remove-hidden-data-and-personal-information-by-inspecting-documents-presentations-or-workbooks-356b7b5d-77af-44fe-a07f-9aa4d085966f
It is recommended that client files never be shared in their native format as Word, Excel, Visio or PowerPoint documents—only as PDFs. Converting these files to PDF removes most of the metadata, but does not delete all the hidden information. That’s why scrubbing your copy of the native file before converting to PDF is recommended for highly sensitive documents.
Just like with other e-documents, changes made to a PDF also may be stored in its’ metadata. Adobe Acrobat DC Pro enables you to check a PDF for hidden information and then select what needs to be removed. This selection process enables you to retain key information that’s needed for court filings, such as bookmarks and links.
Removing Metadata from a PDF with Acrobat DC Pro:
- Make copy of the PDF with metadata and hidden information to be removed.
- Open copy of PDF.
- Select TOOLS in the upper-left corner.
- Choose PROTECT from list of tools that display.
- Click on the REMOVE HIDDEN INFORMATION link in the tool bar. The Remove Hidden Information panel opens on the left with the types of metadata and hidden information contained in the file listed.
- Check the boxes for the types of hidden information to be removed.
- Click on the REMOVE button.
- Close the PDF.
- Save PDF with different name.
More “reasonable precautions” that should be taken when working with your client’s electronic files are presented in Barkley’s new eM/CLE Law in Motion. M/CLE dates available at: Barkley.com/webinar
Click here to Register for Law in Motion Ethics eM/CLE on May 15.
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