Metadata Goes Public

I’m waiting for my flight back to MI right now, so this will be fairly brief. But a court in AZ has ruled that the metadata on public records counts as part of that public record for record requests. (h/t Rayne)

The Arizona state Supreme Court has ruled that the metadata attached to public records is itself public, and cannot be withheld in response to a public records request.


In the Arizona case, a police officer had been demoted in 2006 after reporting “serious police misconduct” to his superiors. He suspected that the demotion was done in retaliation for his blowing the whistle on his fellow officers, so he requested and obtained copies of his performance reports from the department. Thinking that perhaps the negative performance reports had been created after the fact and then backdated, he then demanded access to the file metadata for those reports, in order to find out who had written them and when.

The department refused to grant him access to the metadata, and the matter went to court. After working its way through the court system in a series of rulings and appeals, this past January an Arizona appeals ruled that even though the reports themselves were public records, the metadata was not. It turned out that Arizona state law doesn’t actually define “public record” anywhere, so the appeals court relied on various common law definitions to determine that the metadata, as a mere byproduct of the act of producing a public record on a computer, was not a public record itself.

The case was then appealed to the Arizona state Supreme Court, which has now ruled that the metadata is, in fact, a public record just like the document that it’s attached to.

This is just one state, of course, so it’s only going to help bmaz and his fellow Zoners. But it’s an important precedent.

For one, I think it’s only fair. After all, the government is snooping in our metadata with its massive surveillance program. So it’s only fair we get access to its metadata, along with the content considered public records.

And, as Ars Tecnica notes, there have been a number of embarrassing disclosures of lobbyist influence on public documents. In our own community, recall that William Ockham used the metadata of the MaxTax health reform proposal to show that Liz Fowler, the former VP of Wellpoint, was the author of that bill. And it’s routine for lobbyists (as opposed to nominal staffers, as in Fowler’s case) to submit white papers that are adopted in their entirety (it’s something Jack Abramoff did with the Bush Department of Interior, for example). So if this standard were to become the federal standard, we’d be able to show those connections more easily.

But there’s another reason I’d love to see this become the federal standard. We’d also get to see blind carbon copies–the people secretly copied on key emails, both within and outside of government. Heck, we might even get to see what happened to a key email from the Plame leak if we had the metadata.

Too bad this only works for AZ.

5 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Good decision. It may be highly relevant to the public which public employees drafted, amended, commented upon, maintained, transmitted and printed public documents and when. That list of actors can also include compensated and purportedly uncompensated non-public employees, such as lobbyists, as well as public employees from more than one branch of government.

    The identities of those actors, their interest in and responsibility for government documents and the decisions they record, and the interplay among them, is vital public information. Its disclosure can prevent and expose potential wrongdoing and corruption.

  2. freepatriot says:

    We The People own the fricken government

    so every fricken piece of paper the government has is a “PUBLIC DOCUMENT”

    everything that the government has belongs to US

    is that such a hard concept for judges to grasp ???

  3. MaryCh says:

    What Earl and Free said. I can understand a lower level appellate court not wanting to make new law here, especially given the lack of basis in Arizona, but the AZSupes stand is the only really sensible one, since we’ve returned from Bushzarro world — the purposes of public records laws generally include government transparency.

    The cynic in me immediately thinks “now leg staffers will simply reenter the text by hand to avoid the earlier electron-trail” but the prior record elements earl mentions mean that any “sprang Athena-like from the brow of Zeus” files will carry their own red flags. [The cynic in me gets the last word tho — Scooter Libby, White House vs. non-WH emails, and general footdragging through the courts… :( ]

  4. person1597 says:

    Keep droolin’, droolin’, droolin’…
    Though the reams are swollen,
    Keep those judges rulin’

    Most everyone I speak to agrees that this Hadley email is going to take center stage in whatever happens to Rove, and possibly to others. But the thing that argues against Hadley not being part of the campaign is that a search on his end did not turn up the document, either. Coincidence? I’m having a hard time with that one.

    The more I think about it the less I like it, someone is blowing a lot of smoke up ours …

    Whoever “found” the Immaculate Email is the Tinfoil Virgin.

  5. dustbunny44 says:

    So I missed the ending to this story: did somebody mess with the whistleblower’s evaluations? Were they created after the fact and backdated, or has the metadata been release yet?

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