Journal: Meta-Data in Public Records is Public

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Metadata in State Documents Is Public Record, Court Rules

Kim Zetter, 30 October 2009

Arizona’s Supreme Court, in a surprising but welcome ruling, has declared that electronic metadata is part of the public record under state law, in a case involving an Arizona police officer who suspects his superiors of backdating a document related to his work performance.

The city argued that metadata — digital information that can reveal when a document was created and subsequently accessed or modified — was not part of the public record. Releasing such information to the public would result in an “administrative nightmare” and force public officials to spend “countless hours” trying to identify the metadata, the city claimed.

Two lower courts agreed with the city, noting a distinction between “record” and “public record.”

But the state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that “if a public entity maintains a public record in an electronic format, then the electronic version, including any embedded metadata, is subject to disclosure (.pdf) under our public records laws.”

Supreme Court Justice W. Scott Bales wrote in the ruling that metadata “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.”