More than meets the eye: What lawyers should know about photographs and metadata

July 10, 2014

CameraMy Nikon D90 SLR camera was stolen last year from a skiing park. Through some old fashioned detective work, sophisticated metadata research, and help from the local police, I was reunited with my camera within 9 months. Lawyers who work with photographic evidence will want to take advantage of the unseen metadata that lives with digital photographs. Here is my camera case story.

When my camera went missing at the ski hill, I notified the police right away. They let me review footage from a surveillance camera pointing at the entrance to the facility and I quite easily identified two individuals walking out with my camera bag. I also was able to provide to the police the serial numbers of the camera body and lenses. Yet, time passed and nothing progressed in this camera case. All appeared to be lost.

Unable to give in, I did research and learned that digital images leave a metadata footprint. EXIF (exchangeable image file format) metadata is included in most digital images. This metadata includes information about the image itself, camera settings like shutter speed and aperture, time and date information, and GPS data. This metadata also includes identifying information about the camera, the serial number and the model.

Armed with this information, I began doing searches on the internet for the serial number and model of my camera. I soon learned that most photo sharing sites do not include this metadata – Facebook being the most prominent site that cleans out this metadata. However, some photo sharing sites do include this metadata and one day my internet searching paid off. Photographs with my camera’s serial number were being shared on Flickr.

While the Flickr account was no help in learning the identity of the people who took the camera, more research on Facebook yielded the names of the two people I had identified in the surveillance footage. The subject matter of the Flickr photos, a music festival, matched images posted on Facebook. The police took it from there and within a week they had recovered my camera equipment.

EXIF metadata can be a powerful tool for attorneys. In my case, it provided critical information to connect the dots from the identification of people in a photograph to the actual people. Any attorney who has a case that involves electronic photographic evidence should be aware of the EXIF metadata; at the very least to verify basic information such as the time when a photograph was taken. Any discovery involving photographs should probably always include the digital files for each photograph.

Here is a sampling of materials on WestlawNext that involve EXIF metadata.