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Metadata is a Public Record, Washington Supreme Court Holds

The Washington State Supreme Court has held that Metadata is a public record that must be disclosed under the Public Records Act (PRA). This case raised a question of first impression for the Court.

Metadata is “information describing the history, tracking, or management of an electronic document.” It is simply data about data, or hidden statistical information about a document that is generated by a software program.” Examples of e-mail metadata “include, among 1,200 or more properties, such information as the dates that mail was sent, received, replied to or forward, blind carbon copy…information and sender address book information.”

The Court found that “public record” is defined very broadly, “encompassing virtually any record related to the conduct of government.” As metadata “could conceivably include information about whether a document was altered, what time a document was created, or who sent a document to whom,” it may contain information that relates to the conduct of government and is important for the pubic to know,” wrote the Court. It then held metadata “is a public record subject to disclosure.”

In the case before the Court, the trial court had held that metadata was not disclosable under the PRA. The Appeals Court disagreed, ordering relief. In upholding that ruling, the Supreme Court also approved of the relief granted.

Of interest on that point is that the home computer of the city official who received, and “inadvertently deleted” the e-mail and its metadata subject to the request. It was noted that efforts had been made to comply with the request by providing copies of the e-mail and metadata from those copies of the e-mail and metadata for those copies.

The deletion, however, prevented recovery of the metadata from the original email. The e-mail was received in the City employee’s home computer. As that personal computer was used for city business, the City has the opportunity, if the employee allows it, to inspect the hard drive for the metadata. The Court said that allowing government employees to circumvent the PRA by using their home computers for government business could drastically undermine the PRA.

Whether or not the PRA was violated in this case depends upon the inspection results from the computer. The Appeals Court decision was affirmed. See: O’Neil v. The City of Shoreline, 240 P.3d 1149 (Wash 2010).

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Related legal case

O’Neil v. The City of Shoreline