Data embedded in electronic documents should be released as public records

The data is important because it provides an accurate history of that document.


Government documents -- whether on paper or a computer screen -- are generally public records. That's been established by law in most states.

But what hasn't been established by law is whether the hidden data embedded in electronic documents should also be released to the public as part of the record.

We strongly believe it should be. The electronic data -- known as "metadata" -- generally include such things as when a document is created and when it was revised and by whom. That information isn't generally visible when a document is printed but it can easily be accessed with a few key strokes.

At this point, technology is ahead of the laws. Most states have not specifically addressed the issue of metadata, although that is changing rapidly.

Last year a Washington state appellate court ruled that metadata in e-mail received by a city official become a public record. Washington's law specifically says this information is subject to disclosure. Nevertheless, the ruling was appealed and the case is now before the Washington state Supreme Court.

A ruling last week in Arizona by that state's high court is reason for optimism.

The court wisely and reasonably concluded metadata must be disclosed as part of the record when it overturned a lower court's ruling.

"It would be illogical, and contrary to the policy of openness underlying the public records law, to conclude that public entities can withhold information embedded in an electronic document, such as the date of creation, while they would be required to produce the same information if it were written manually on paper public records," Justice Scott Bales wrote in the Arizona case.

Metadata entries are important because they provides an accurate history of that document. The case that was before Arizona high court is an example of why that's important. In the case a demoted Phoenix police officer requested data embedded in notes written by a supervisor to see whether the supervisor backdated the notes to before the demotion.

The ruling in Arizona sets the proper tone as Washington and other states sort this issue out. The public has a right to see all of the government records, including the hidden data embedded in electronic documents.

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