What are Metadata? (And Why You Should Care When Government Won't Let You See Them)

We've never even tried to obtain metadata from a government agency, and now the Arizona Court of Appeals tells us we can't have them.
What the hell are metadata, anyway? (And isn't it annoying they must used in plural form?)
Well, it turns out that every keystroke you make in a word processing program generates extra data that are stored in your computer. As you work on different programs, the computer produces hidden code with meaningful information -- time and date, the user's sign-in name, etc. These are examples of metadata.
But those cyber bits aren't covered under public records law, according to last week's Appeals Court opinion.

The interesting thing about metadata is that since they are made automatically and are beyond our control, they likely often provides evidence of things that people wish they didn't.

And sometimes, metadata might be evidence of government malfeasance.

That's exactly what former current Phoenix police Sergeant David Lake alleged in a lawsuit he filed a couple of years ago against his employer. Lake claims his superiors retaliated against him after he reported "serious police misconduct," and that he was demoted.

Lake put in a public records request for notes his supervisors had written about his job performance, suspecting he was demoted as retaliation long before any supposed performance issues about him were written down. But one supervisor produced a printout of notes that were allegedly written before Lake's demotion. Lake cried foul, believing his supervisor had back-dated the document, and requested the metadata that would have been embedded with the document on the computer. From the court's opinion:

   Lake asserts that the hard-copy is essentially useless, as Conrad could have easily back-dated the notes.

   Lake further contends that "[w]ithout the metadata, the public has no way of authenticating Conrad's notes to monitor the machinations of government" and that the metadata is necessary to determine if the government was "acting in a lawful and honest manner."

  Finally, Lake asserts that the City has "chosen to operate in a cloak of secrecy" that undermines the policy behind Arizona's public records law.


Lake is spot-on with this analysis -- metadata is crucial to determine if government is being honest. Without metadata, the public can't do the second part of our favorite Russian saying, "Trust, but verify."

The court essentially admits metadata can be very useful, but disagrees on technical points that they qualify as public records. This leaves an opening for lawmakers in the future to bring public records law into the digital age.

Only two of the three appeals court judges agreed metadata are not public records. The third judge, Patricia Norris, takes a broader approach and writes that she believes metadata are not only public records, they're "precisely the type of information our public records law is meant to reveal."

To paraphrase from one of our favorite movies: The metadata are everywhere -- and forbidding us from them blinds us from the truth.