Meta-data on the face of a paper public record – a file stamp, for example – is obviously disclosable information. But what about meta-data that is NOT normally “on the face” of a paper document, but which is associated with (although not displayed on the face of) an electronic document? Is it, or is it not, “public” in the same sense as the document itself?
In Lake v. City of Phoenix, 222 Ariz. 547, 218 P.3d 1004 (2009), http://www.supreme.state.az.us/opin/pdf2009/cv090036pr.pdf,. the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that e-document meta-data is a part of the document and therefore as much “public” and subject to disclosure as the underlying document.
A Phoenix police officer, having filed an employment discrimination complaint, sought (and received paper printouts of) his supervisor’s notes. Suspecting that the notes had been back dated, he then requested “‘meta data’ or specific file information …,” including “the TRUE creation date, the access date, the access dates for each time it was accessed, including who accessed the file as well as print dates etc.” The City denied the request, contending that metadata is not a public record. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals upheld the city’s denial. The Supreme Court reversed, stating:
“The court erred, however, by parsing the electronic version of Conrad’s notes and focusing separately on the metadata contained within the document. The pertinent issue is not whether metadata considered alone is a public record. Instead, the question is whether a “public record” maintained in an electronic format includes not only the information normally visible upon printing the document but also any embedded metadata…”
“It would be illogical, and contrary to the policy of openness underlying the public records laws, 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 a paper public record.”
“… [W]hen a public entity maintains a public record in an electronic format, the electronic version of the record, including any [emphasis added] embedded metadata, is subject to disclosure under our public records law.” Lake, Supra.
Why does this matter? For a couple of reasons:
• A paper document rarely contains its own creation and access history.
• A paper document contains only surface indications of its own security (e.g., notary seal, certification stamp). An electronic document can contain detailed security meta-data, as for example with electronic signature information.
But Wait… There’s More
Interestingly, the Court went on to say:
“We do not here decide when a public entity is required to retain public records in electronic format. That a public record currently exists in an electronic format, and is subject to disclosure in that format, does not itself determine whether there is a statutory obligation to preserve it electronically.”
The intriguing suggestion is that there might be a very strong argument in favor of requiring that some public records be retained electronically precisely because the meta-data adds so much to the record. The next logical step is to argue that use of mere paper documents fails to provide the minimally acceptable level of information required of records.
I believe the issues this case presents have ramifications far beyond the “public disclosure” implications (which, granted, are significant). It is more like, a “canary in the coal mine”, signaling the world’s evolution from regarding paper-based documents as cumbersome and inefficient to being incomplete and inadequate for modern purposes; not to mention highlighting the need to carefully control what meta-data is included in documents.
What do you think?