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Metadata in Electronic Government Records Must be Released to Public, Arizona Supreme Court Rules

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Phoenix police Sergeant David Lake may get to find out whether his supervisors screwed him over, thanks to unanimous pro-public-records ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court.

As we related back in January, Lake was halted twice by the court system in his quest to obtain the metadata embedded in a Microsoft Word document written by one of his supervisors.

Metadata (yeah, it's an ugly, modern word that doesn't flow trippingly from the tongue). But every computer user ought to know about it. When you type in a Word document, for example, you're creating metadata without even realizing it that may identify you, the document's creation data, and other potentially interesting facts.

Lake believed his colleagues retaliated against him for reporting what he called serious misconduct on the part of some officers. After he made his report, he was demoted. But his supervisors claimed they had written him up for poor performance before the demotion, and presented a printout of their notes.

A suspicious Lake requested the metadata from the printout's original Word document, thinking he might find evidence that the notes had been written after the demotion. The city denied the request and was backed up by the Maricopa County Superior Court. When Lake took his case to the Arizona Court of Appeals, two of three justices ruled against him, claiming that metadata were not public records under the state's open records law.

Today, the Arizona Supreme Court announced that metadata are, in fact, public records:

The metadata in an electronic document is part of the underlying document; it does not stand on its own. When a public officer uses a computer to make a public record, the metadata forms part of the document as much as the words on the page.

The five members of the state Supreme Court returned the case to the Superior Court for new consideration based on their decision, including whether Lake should be reimbursed for his attorney fees.

You should care about this ruling for two reasons:

1. You should be aware that the electronic documents you send to others or upload onto the Web contain metadata.

2. You might find yourself in a position like that of Lake's someday -- don't forget that when the government gives you public records that were generated on a computer, they contain metadata that could be illuminating. And the state's high court says you can have it.

Lake may or may not find what he's looking for because of this ruling. But he's hacked a path through the cyberjungle for the rest of us.

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