Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Electronic metadata are open, federal judge rules

"For the first time, a federal court has ruled that metadata -- information related to the history, tracking or management of an electronic document -- must be released if requested under the Freedom of Information Act," reports Christine Beckett of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled Monday in the case of National Day Laborer Organizing Network v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The labor group requested records in electronic form from ICE. "After significant delay, the agency provided the records, but did so by putting the them into a large, unsearchable PDF that lacked distinction within and lacked metadata," Beckett reports.

Scheindlin said that failed to meet the requirements of FOIA because the data were unusable and undefined. "There was no way to discern the beginning and end of individual records," Beckett explains. The judge said ICE's arguments were "lame."

Metadata are essential to using electronic records because they show "the government is not hiding anything," said Sunita Patel, attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, co-counsel and co-plaintiff in the suit. "It goes to the heart of FOIA."

The judge said metadata should be specifically requested, but ruled that because the labor group asked for electronic records in "native format," the original electronic format that contains metadata, that was sufficient to require ICE to provide the metadata.

She "conceded that not all metadata may fall under FOIA's 'readily producible' standard, noting that, in some circumstances, producing all metadata could be too burdensome for an agency," Beckett reports. "The court said the determination of what metadata must be produced should be conducted on a case-by-case basis, and depend upon the type of electronic record requested and how the agency maintains its records." The U.S. attorney handling the case declined to say if an appeal will follow. (Read more)

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