What Kate Middleton's Edited Photo Tells Us About Metadata

The British Royal family's photo-editing story has provided a reminder about the digital breadcrumbs we all leave behind.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read
Catherine, Princess of Wales, at Christmas 2023

Catherine, Princess of Wales (still called Kate Middleton by many), is seen here at the Together at Christmas carol service she spearheaded at Westminster Abbey in December 2023. That was the last month she was seen in public.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

When photo and data experts found that a seemingly benign Mother's Day photo posted by the Prince and Princess of Wales earlier this month had been significantly manipulated, it set off an international debate engulfing the British royal family in waves of conspiracy theories about the princess.

Kate Middleton put a lid on those theories on Friday, when she announced a cancer diagnosis in a video message posted on Instagram. But the photo-editing debate has also served as an educational reminder of the metadata that's hidden beneath all the photos and videos we see online. 

Yes, the same data that powers helpful tricks, like searching "Washington, DC" in your photos app and getting all your snapshots from a recent vacation. Now it's become a lifeline for journalists and online detectives trying to discern what's real on the internet.

Image manipulation isn't new, but its impact has accelerated with the power of social media. Regular people have access to ever-improving tools that use a mix of artificial intelligence and other technologies, and run on nearly anyone's smartphone, tablet or computer. Companies are ramping up efforts to help us identify manipulated data, but there appears to be no easy answer for now.

Read more: How Close Is That Photo to the Truth? What to Know in the Age of AI

What does metadata have to do with Kate Middleton?

Sky News reported that the type of camera used to take at least some part of Middleton's now-infamous photo was a Canon 5D Mark IV. The publication said it learned this based on the metadata in the photo itself. The news outlet also identified the shutter speed and other settings of the camera when the original image was snapped. Sky News could also tell the image had been snapped at the royal family's home in Windsor.

Most telling in this scenario, Sky News was able to see that the image had been run through Adobe's popular Photoshop software on a Mac computer at least twice.

TMZ was able to identify similar information when the celebrity gossip site published a grainy video of Middleton and Prince William earlier this week, indicating that it had been shot on an iPhone 12 Pro at a location near the royal couple's Windsor home. That matched up with the declaration that the royal couple was out and about at a farmer's market-style business called Windsor Farm Shop.

Read more: Kate Middleton Scandal: Why Obama's Photographer Got Involved

Where is this metadata, and how can I read it?

Metadata is typically included inside any digital file, be it a document, image, video or audio clip. It can tell you when a file was created, when it was last modified and all sorts of other information.

One of the best-known types of metadata is referred to as EXIF. In photos and videos, it often includes details such as what type of camera was used, its settings at the time of snapping the image and where it was taken. 

Location data can be rather sensitive, particularly if you share a photo taken at your home. Each phone has ways to either disable or remove location information when taking the image, and also when sharing it.

Consider yourself warned: The metadata rabbit hole goes deep. There are multiple standards beyond EXIF, including IPTC and XMP, which are designed for different functions like tracking edits or copyright rules. 

Can metadata be manipulated?

All data can be manipulated. This is part of why news organizations have rules around reporting on hacked materials that spill onto the web, because they may be manipulated in addition to having been stolen in the first place.

There are also different apps for your phone, tablet and computer designed to remove metadata. In Windows, you can edit the metadata by right-clicking on the file and going to its properties. Similarly, Apple's Photos app can help edit metadata on a Mac. 

The best way to ensure data is accurate is to confirm it with the original source.

Data manipulation issues aren't new to the digital age. When The New York Times was preparing to publish its blockbuster series on the Pentagon Papers in 1971, some researchers were told to verify every detail in the report. 

"My job became to verify or discredit information in the Pentagon Papers," Times researcher Linda Amster said in an oral history of the event. "If I couldn't verify it, then it couldn't be used."

In today's digital age, tech companies including Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft, Samsung and OpenAI are trying to create rules ensuring that manipulated images are identified, but it's very hard. And it can result in a royal saga.

CNET's Corinne Reichert contributed to this report.