New ruling requires agencies to turn over hidden data


Author: Daniel Himebaugh

In Washington State, electronic "metadata" now constitutes a "public record" under the state's Public Records Act.  This means that state and local authorities must disclose metadata to members of the public who request it.Computer pic for blog

Metadata is "data about data"–hidden information about electronic documents created by software programs.  For instance, a common e-mail message may contain metadata documenting when the message was sent, who sent and received it, who replied to it or forwarded it, and who received a blind carbon copy of it.

The new metadata rule is the result of the Supreme Court of Washington's recent decision in O'Neill v. City of Shoreline.  In that case, a resident of the City of Shoreline forwarded an e-mail via blind carbon copy to the Shoreline Deputy Mayor and other public officials.  The e-mail said, among other things, that a person named O'Neill had been complaining to her friends about the "dysfunctional" Shoreline City Council.  Later, during the course of a City Council meeting, one of the council members remarked that she had received the e-mail, which she alleged was sent to her by O'Neill.  O'Neill denied authoring or sending the e-mail, and requested a copy of it from the city, including all pertinent metadata.  Due to the blind carbon copy, only the e-mail's metadata could reveal who had sent and/or received the message, but the city refused to disclose the metadata.

The court ruled that the metadata associated with the e-mail is a public record under the PRA, and must be disclosed immediately.  The court based its decision on the PRA's liberal construction provision, which strongly favors the public's access to information:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.  The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.  The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.  [The PRA] should be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.

O'Neill is a positive development promoting the notion that the government serves the people.  State laws governing public access to records should facilitate broad access, including access to metadata, which tracks the flow of information, and sheds light on how public agencies have used it.