Avast Academy Privacy Digital Life What Is Metadata: Definition and Meaning

What Is Metadata: Definition and Meaning

Metadata is the hidden data that accompanies every image, video, and file you encounter. It helps you organize and manage data sets, but can also pose privacy and security risks if left unchecked. Learn more about what metadata is, what types of metadata exist, and how online security and privacy software — like Avast One — can keep all your data safe.

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Written by Ellie Farrier
Updated on October 12, 2023

What is metadata?

Metadata is a set of data that provides information about other data. Metadata contextualizes other data — providing information such as when and how it was gathered — which makes the data easier to find, understand, use, and manage.

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    While metadata provides unique contextual information about a set of data, it does not, strictly speaking, provide content about that data. Metadata can tell you when a message was sent, but it won’t tell you the actual text of the message. Similarly, metadata can tell you where a picture was taken, but it won’t let you see the actual picture. (Of course, a lot of valuable information can still be uncovered from metadata.)

    Metadata definition

    The simplest definition of metadata is data about data. Metadata helps summarize a set of other data and can include information such as:

    • How the data was created — the means.

    • When the data was created — the time and date.

    • Why the data was created — the purpose.

    • Who created the data — the author.

    • Where the data was created — the location.

    • How big the data is — the file size.

    Metadata examples

    Everyday examples of metadata include HTML tags that define a website’s layout and design; timestamp and location data on photographs; and the file size, file name, and date of documents updated on Microsoft Office or Google Docs.

    Unless you use encryption software or an anonymous email provider to keep your data private, each email you send or receive includes metadata — including your IP address, the time you sent it, and other authentication information. To see some of the metadata of an email in your Gmail inbox, open the email, click More (three vertical dots), and select Show original.

    Open an email in your gmail inbox, then select Show original to view the email's metadata.

    Types of metadata

    There are three main types of metadata: descriptive, structural, and administrative.

    • Descriptive metadata is identification information for the resource. Examples of descriptive metadata for a document include the title and creator’s name.

    • Structural metadata provides information about how the elements of the resource or data are organized and related. A YouTube video’s structural metadata might include the different parts of the video, what order they’re arranged in, and where ads play.

    • Administrative metadata is information about the origin of a resource, who owns the data, and who can access it. The administrative metadata of a photo might include the copyright owner, the camera equipment used, the shutter speed, and the image resolution.

    A simplified view of an email's descriptive and administrative metadata in Gmail.An email from your Gmail inbox contains different types of metadata.

    Metadata can describe resources or datasets in many different ways, not just in one of those three categories. You can even download your Google data to see how your Google metadata is organized for your files, images, and videos.

    How to remove metadata from photos

    Want to remove a photo or image’s metadata before sharing it? In Windows, you can delete photo metadata in the same way that you’d remove metadata from a PDF or Word doc.

    Here’s how to remove metadata from photos and other kinds of files:

    1. Open the relevant folder and select the photo you want to remove metadata from.

      Locating a file in Windows Explorer to remove metadata from a photo.
    2. Right-click the image file and select Properties.

      Opening file properties to delete image metadata.
    3. Select the Details tab and then click Remove Properties and Personal Information.

      Selecting "Removing properties and personal information" within the "Details" tab of the file properties.
    4. Finally, select the metadata categories you wish to delete, or select Create a copy with all possible properties removed and click OK.

      Deleting all image metadata by creating a new file copy with all possible properties removed.

    Metadata management

    Metadata management refers to the practice of integrating metadata across an organization to make it more accessible. Integrating metadata needs to be done carefully, because mismanagement of metadata leads to increased privacy risks. Confidential metadata shouldn’t get into the wrong hands or be shared with the wrong people. Without proper metadata management, you may face one of the following challenges:

    • Lost documents or files missing crucial information.

    • Outdated metadata, if not checked or integrated regularly.

    • Siloed metadata, making it impossible to relate important datasets to one another.

    • Versioning confusion, where multiple datasets compete with one another.

    • Disconnected data and metadata, rendering both useless.

    • Hidden malware lurking in unchecked metadata.

    Regularly delete duplicate files, old documents, or media you don’t recognize to ensure no malicious code is hiding. And when you connect to the internet, use a VPN to encrypt your traffic and keep your metadata private.

    Protect your data with Avast One

    Metadata is everywhere, and it’s impossible to know where all the metadata you create in the course of your digital day ends up. Comprehensive security and privacy software can help protect all the data you unwittingly leak. Avast One includes a built-in VPN that provides military-grade encryption to keep your data safe from prying eyes. Install Avast One for free today.

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    Digital Life
    Ellie Farrier