Thanks to the NSA leaks, metadata has become a mainstream topic of conversation. Many of the less technically inclined are trying to make sense of it all. TV is not necessarily my go-to educational source for exploring new tech topics–I’m more of a Gigaom and, I confess, a Life Hacker person— but I then stumbled upon The Good Wife. It’s a show about law firms that, unlike most TV shows and movies, happens to get the technical details right. In one episode, the partners in the mythical Lockhart Gartner (LG) law firm display a deep understanding of the difference between metadata and the actual data content it describes. I was somewhat surprised by these geeky lawyers, but as I later learned, the legal sector has a reasonable claim to make for being early adopters of metadata technology.
In this latest season’s first episode, the partners have suspected the firm’s 4th year associates are recruiting clients in a bid to launch their own firm, so they examine the associates’ cell phone records—the metadata—and then take the additional step of looking at SMS text—the actual data. I present the following transcript as evidence:
- Alicia: What’s wrong?
- David: We looked into the company’s phones. Over the past month, the fourth-year associates have called our top clients a dozen times each.
- Diane: We’re worried they’re thinking of leaving with them. Do you have any insight?
- Alicia: No.
- Will: We called the clients, but they’re being tightlipped, said they have no plans of leaving at the present time.
- David: Which is known as “preserving their options.” I say we move past metadata and access their texts.
- Diane: Can we do that?
- David: Yes, we can do that. They’re our phones. We own the texts.
As a legal matter, employers can look at employees’ text messages sent on a corporate phone—it’s essentially company property, just like email. And you should check out our post on confidential company information for some finer points on intellectual property in a work context.
The more important concept is that LG’s partners understand that by looking at phone numbers, along with call dates and times of calls (i.e., the metadata), they can make very informed guesses about what their employees are doing—stealing clients in this case.
How did the show’s attorneys get to be so savvy about the power of metadata to make inferences?
Here again The Good Wife plays it close to real life. In doing my own research and examining some back issues of ancient legal tech magazines–thanks Andy!—I think I’ve found the source of lawyers’ metadata precociousness.
Lawyers were early and heavy users of Microsoft Word and were quick to realize the promise of the metadata stored in text documents by this new word processing software. It turns out that extended file metadata has been a known feature of Microsoft Word since the late 1990s and beloved by attorneys who worked in collaborative environments.
Beyond a Word doc, since any electronically stored information contains at least some metadata, lawyers quickly learned how to leverage it in the course of e-discovery during litigation. E-Discovery tools, which used metadata to categorize legal documents, enabled law firms to quickly collect, process and analyze electronic evidence.
Metadata also had a perilous side.
Law firms learned, sometimes by accident, that metadata can reveal information about internal legal operations. When a partner assures a client that he’d personally draft a contract and then passes the work to a very capable first year associate for the initial draft, he assumes this tiny legal white lie would go undetected. But clients began to discover the truth when they looked at the metadata in Microsoft Word’s properties fields to find the first year associate’s name instead of the partner’s as the author. Moreover, partner rates billed just might magnify an already embarrassing situation. As a result, law firms started buying metadata scrubbing software as way to close leaks.
It appears that law firms, even mythical ones such as LG, have already been using and managing metadata. However, if tech savvy law firms and The Good Wife writers want to take their metadata knowledge up a notch and look into the world of human generated big data, they just might discover an added layer of protection, management and even actionable intelligence.
Thanks to http://www.varonis.com