Blown To Bits

Fingerprints on the memo

Saturday, May 31st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Metadata is data about your data. A filename is the simplest kind of metadata; it is data that goes with the file but is different from the data in the file itself. Depending on the software you are using, a file’s metadata might include the time it was created and last modified, the registered name of the owner of the computer on which it was created, the name of some other file from which this file was derived, and the name of the software that was used to create it.

A file’s metadata can be revealing once the file gets into circulation. If you are organizing your sister’s birthday party and you send her the RSVP list, forgetting that you named the file “my_stupid_sisters_stupid_party.doc,” sis may draw some inferences from the metadata beyond what she learns from the file itself about who is coming.

In Chapter 3 of Blown to Bits we give some embarrassing examples of this kind. But today’s news brings us a whopper. The foolish computer user in this case user seems not to be some hapless birthday-giving brother, but Google. Talk about people who should know better!

The story is set in Australia, where Ebay is planning to shift its payment system to Paypal only, eliminating the credit and debit card option. Ebay owns Paypal, and in Australia, this sort of thing requires public comment. Among the comments received was an anonymous 38-page document, giving all the reasons why Ebay should not be allowed to do this — it would be anticompetitive, etc., etc.

Anonymous, but perhaps not too anonymous. The document was a PDF, but the “Title” property was “Microsoft Word – 204481916_1_ACCC Submission by Google re eBay Public _2_.DOC.” (If you use Acrobat Reader to open a PDF document, then use the “Properties” menu item, you may be able to find this kind of information as part of the “Description.”) I wonder if someone at Google would really use Microsoft Word or put “Google” into the filename. But even if not, the document could still be Google’s — it might have been written by an outside counsel, or consultant, or summer intern even.

Google seems neither to be confirming nor denying that it is the source of the anonymous document. Theoretically, it could be a third party trying to embarrass Google. And¬†Google isn’t currently competing for the Paypal market in Australia. But it does make you wonder if Google is venturing a bit beyond its “You can make money without doing evil” philosophy.

For the whole story, and links to the document itself, check out this item on TechCrunch.

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