City hall’s new secrets

Pub date November 7, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Back in 1999 reporter Scott Rosenberg dug up a juicy little scoop for Salon: he found out that part of Microsoft’s annual report was written on an Apple computer. That caused the giant purveyor of Windows software (and Apple competitor) no small amount of embarrassment. And Rosenberg did this without any secret source or leaked records; he just looked at the metadata embedded in the files of public company documents.
Metadata is part of the new frontier of public-records law. It’s the stuff you can’t see that’s hidden in digital versions of, say, Microsoft Word documents. It shows what computer (and type of computer) created the document and often shows the revisions the document has gone through. It’s sort of an electronic history of what used to be something typed on paper — and as such, it’s extremely useful to researchers who want to follow what the government is doing.
It’s also, all too often, something that public officials want to hide. That’s the case in San Francisco, where Gloria Young, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors, has refused to release copies of the original Word versions of what are clearly public records. She wouldn’t, for example, give out a Word copy of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.
That’s a mistake — and the Board of Supervisors needs to direct Young to change her policy.
Young isn’t refusing to release the records per se — she’s had them made into PDFs, the electronic equivalent of photocopies that don’t contain the embedded data. And she’s released those versions. The office of City Attorney Dennis Herrera concluded Sept. 19 that city officials have the right to withhold metadata and provide documents only in PDF format. The argument, contained in a six-page memo, goes more or less like this:
A Word version of a document can be edited and changed — and thus someone who requests a public record might alter it and then pass it off as a true version.
Besides, metadata might possibly contain privileged information (legal advice from an attorney). It might include early drafts of a document (which are exempt from disclosure but really shouldn’t be). And it might give somebody with evil intent the ability to hack into the city’s computer system and do a lot of damage.
In the end, deputy city attorney Paul Zarefsky argues, figuring out where there is and isn’t metadata and what it might include is a huge job that requires special skills and would be inordinately burdensome for city agencies.
The first argument is just silly. Sure, somebody could take a copy of a city record and alter it — but enterprising scammers have always been able to take real records and turn them into phonies. That’s why the city keeps the originals on file and releases only copies.
The rest of Zarefsky’s analysis is a bit more complex. But in the end the posture of the city is far too defensive. This is, after all, data that was produced by city employees on the taxpayers’ dime. And like just about everything else the city produces — with only narrow exceptions — it ought to be released to the public.
We don’t buy the argument that there are vast stores of deep secrets lurking in the metadata that might somehow damage the city’s interests. There may be a few specific cases in which documents have been reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office and might include confidential advice. But most of the material will simply show who created the document, how it was edited (and by whom), and how all of that relates to the final product. Like the Microsoft revelation, some of that might embarrass city hall — but that’s not an excuse to keep it secret.
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, noted in a Sept. 22 letter to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force that the “CNPA is aware of no other state or local agency that has adopted this restrictive policy.”
Herrera’s office, interestingly, isn’t arguing that all metadata must be secret — the opinion only says that department employees have the ability to withhold it if they want to. That’s where the supervisors need to weigh in.
Young asked the Rules Committee on Nov. 2 for policy direction on the matter. The committee heard testimony and took the matter under advisement.
The chair, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, should bring up the issue again at the next possible meeting, and the committee should direct Young — and all other city officials — to stop using metadata as an excuse to withhold documents. San Francisco ought to be taking the lead here and setting a policy precedent for cities across the state. SFBG
PS This is just one example of what seems to be a renewed war on sunshine at City Hall. The task force just had its budget cut and no longer has a full-time staffer assigned to it (although the Sunshine Ordinance mandates full-time staff assistance). The supervisors should make it clear that San Francisco isn’t going to slide backward into the old, dark days.