The devil in the metadata

San Francisco struggles with a different kind of public record

The Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors is considering whether or not the city should allow its departments to release electronic documents that include metadata. Although the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has already hashed over the minutiae of this issue and ruled that metadata can and should be released, the mystery enshrouding what it is, and the lack of any specific policy or known precedent in other cities or states with public records laws has pushed the discussion upstream to where a formal legislation has become a possibility.
Freedom of information purists are saying all the parts and pieces of a document are part of the public domain, while the City Attorney’s Office is claiming another layer of protection may be required.
Metadata entered the realm of public discussion in San Francisco after citizens started making requests of electronic documents with a specific plea for metadata. Activists Allen Grossman and Kimo Crossman wanted copies of, ironically enough, the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, in its original Microsoft Word format. Grossman and Crossman wanted to use the advantages of technology to follow the evolving amendments the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force members were considering for the city’s public records law. These “tracked changes” are a common function in Word, and are, technically, metadata.
When Clerk of the Board Gloria Young received these specific requests for Word documents, not knowing what this “metadata” was or what to do about it, she turned to the office of City Attorney Dennis Herrera for advice.
Deputy City Attorney Paul Zarefsky initially gave oral advice to Young, and when pressed by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, issued a five-page memo in response, arguing that release of documents with metadata could pave a path for hackers into the city’s computer system, render documents dangerously vulnerable to cut-and-paste manipulation, and invite another unwelcome burden of reviewing and redacting for city officials. Young followed his advice and proffered the requested documents as PDFs.
A PDF, or “portable document format,” is essentially a photograph of the real thing, and contains none of the metadata that exists a couple clicks of the mouse away in a Word document. Evolving changes can’t be tracked, and PDFs don’t have the same searchability that Word docs have. So PDFs of the Sunshine Ordinance that Young provided didn’t have the functions that Crossman and Grossman were looking for, and were utterly useless for their purposes.
“It’s 92 pages,” Grossman said of the PDF Sunshine Ordinance. “I can’t search it electronically if I want to find something. This document I received is of no use to me.”

Before delving too deep into the intricacies of current city politics, let’s pause for a moment to note that you don’t need to be a Luddite to have no idea what metadata is. It sounds like some diminutive or ethereal version of the real thing. In a sense, it is.
Simply put, metadata is data about data, and grows with weed-like tenacity in the electronic flora of the twenty-first century. Common examples include the track an email took from an outbox to an inbox, details about the owner of a computer program, or the laptop on which a Word document has been typed.
Metadata becomes cause for concern when there is something to hide. Not readily visible, metadata requires a little sleuthing to reveal, but in the past it’s been used to uncover deeper truths about a situation. For example, attorney Jim Calloway relates on his Law Practice Tips blog a divorce case where custody of the child was called into question because of the content of emails sent from the mother to the father. The mother denied she’d sent the emails, though the father vehemently insisted she had. A court forensics investigation found metadata showing that, in reality, the father had written the emails and sent them to himself.
“Metadata speaks the truth,” Calloway writes.