October 30, 2009
Arizona Supreme Court Holds Metadata in Public Records is Public
The Arizona Supreme Court holds that metadata in an electronic document which is also a public document is part of that document and can be examined by the public. David Lake is a Phoenix police officer who alleged employment discrimination against Phoenix in federal court. He also filed a public records request for notes kept by his supervisor documenting his work performance. Lake received the paper copies and wanted the electronic versions, including the metadata included in those electronic copies. He thought that some of these documents reduced to paper may have been manipulated by backdating or other tricks that the metadata could reveal.
Document metadata comes in many forms. For Microsoft Word, the metadata is viewable by going to File and selecting properties. In Office 7, it's hidden away but still accessible. For an open document, click on the Office Logo button in the upper left hand corner of the screen, select prepare, and then properties from the next menu that opens. That will give some information. Just above the properties bar there is a drop down menu for Document Properties which opens up another choice, Advanced Properties, which when selected will bring you to the same information you can find in earlier versions of Word in two simple steps rather than the five here. Got that? The information under the Statistics tab shows things like date created, date modified, date accessed, date printed, the number of revisions, who saved it last, and total editing time. Someone editing a document such as in the Lake case can manipulate the metadata in some respects. The easiest way is to simply copy text from an old document into a new blank document as the metadata is only carried by individual files. The old metadata is wiped out. New document, new metadata. Note this, faculty and students in plagiarism cases. It takes a bit more deviousness to manipulate the system clock on a PC to affect the time and date stamps in creating and editing documents. That's something Lake's supervisor probably did not do. Then there is the possibility of getting to the text that is edited out by invoking the various undo delete features. The Microsoft Help File for Word 2007 has this handy information. The start of the help sequence reads as follows:
Inspect documents for hidden data and personal information
If you plan to share an electronic copy of a Microsoft Office Word document with clients or colleagues, it is a good idea to review the document for hidden data or personal information that might be stored in the document itself or in the document properties (metadata (metadata: Data that describes other data. For example, the words in a document are data; the word count is an example of metadata.)). Because this hidden information can reveal details about your organization or about the document itself that you might not want to share publicly, you might want to remove this hidden information before you share the document with other people.
This article explains how the Document Inspector feature in Microsoft Office Word 2007 can help you find and remove hidden data and personal information in your documents.
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But I digress. The Arizona Court noted that the public records statute doesn't actually define what in fact is a public record, but notes through court decisions and other statutes there is a broad public right to inspect those records which are relevant to government business. It also noted that the metadata does not exist separately from the main document. One exists because of the other.
¶ 13 ... 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.
¶ 14 We accordingly hold that when a public entity maintains a public record in an electronic format, the electronic version of the record, including any embedded metadata, is subject to disclosure under our public records law.
I have a feeling that Arizona public entities are going to place more emphasis on understanding how metadata is embedded in word processing documents from now on.
The case is Lake v. City of Phoenix, No. CV-09-0036-PR (October 19, 2009). And in a related note, see this story in CNET about how Google handed a redacted PDF to the FCC about Google Voice that was quite electronically unredacted. Google Voice has 1.419 million users, something we weren't supposed to know, among other facts. [MG]
I think the Arizona Supreme Court did not hold that metadata is going to be always subject to public records requests. See http://natalia-garrett.blogspot.com/ Also, see the Arizona Electronic Tranaction Act, A.R.S. § 44-7012(A), stating that there are two categories of records: (1) those which a law requires to be retained and (2) those which a law requires to be presented or retained in its original form. Interestingly, with respect to both categories, the e-document retention requirement is “satisfied by retaining an electronic record of the information in the record that: 1. Accurately reflects the information prescribed in the record after the record was first generated in its final form as an electronic record or otherwise. 2. Remains accessible for later reference.” Do you think the legislature intended to include metadata in the "information prescribed in the record after the record was first generated in its final form"?
Posted by: Natalia Garrett | Dec 7, 2009 7:07:39 PM