Legislator Looking To Force Government Agencies To Release FOIAed Documents In Their Original Formats

from the I-asked-for-data,-not-a-useless-sheet-of-paper dept

This is an important step forward for (forced) government transparency. A Colorado legislator is introducing a bill that would require government agencies to stop paying lip service to transparency with their purposefully-hobbled FOIA responses. Arthur Kane at Watchdog.org has the details.

A state senator plans legislation next session requiring that electronic databases be released in the same format as governments are keeping them. This comes after open records advocates asked why some government agencies are making their records less transparent.

Denver and other governments often provide databases and spreadsheets in locked PDF formats, even when the records are maintained in Microsoft Excel, Access or other formats, which make them easier to sort and analyze.

State Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, met with members of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition last month. He said he expects to have language this week to file an early bill.

Hopefully, his proposal will become law. This sort of FOIA reform is needed in every state, as well as at the federal level.

Documents released by the NSA and FBI are often delivered in unsearchable PDFs, made from what look like 7th-generation copies created by a faulty mimeograph and forced through a malfunctioning scanner during an earthquake. This makes it much harder for researchers, journalists and activists to perform keyword searches of released documents, much less accurately track redaction inconsistencies or evolving legal arguments. This is deliberate.

This legislation would also prevent people like Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis from waving a white flag in the face of technology and claiming they have no choice but to convert emails to hard copy (and charge duplication fees).

Government agencies shouldn’t be format shifting responsive documents. Sure, some of this can be chalked up to ignorance. But a lot more can be chalked up to deliberate efforts to make responsive documents as useless as possible for requesters. Watchdog requested staff salaries and contract info from the city of Denver and got printouts of the spreadsheets in PDF form. Sure, it got the data it wanted, but with none of the usefulness of the original document in its original format.

Unbelievably, government agencies that have refused to provide databases, spreadsheets, etc. to FOIA requesters claim these actions are taken to “maintain the integrity of the data.” Really? Are they sending requesters the only copy of the data? Are they somehow convinced the release of a database or spreadsheet would corrupt the data stored on their local drives? This excuse makes no sense.

I’m guessing it’s supposed to mean that anyone can alter a spreadsheet after receiving it in response to a FOIA request and make it appear as though it states something the original actually doesn’t. But that could easily be solved by posting the same document in its original format at the agency’s website. That way anyone can verify the accuracy of FOIAed documents posted elsewhere by private parties.

As for the other excuse given, Kefalas’ proposed legislation is the rebuttal.

[C]ity attorneys say case law doesn’t allow the requester to choose the format of the records.

If everything goes as planned, the city will have to give up its reliance on case law and follow the actual law.

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Comments on “Legislator Looking To Force Government Agencies To Release FOIAed Documents In Their Original Formats”

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6 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

"maintain the integrity of the data."

Perhaps some of the entities doing this are motivated by the side effect that format shifting tends to lose non-obvious metadata, such as document edit attribution, data fields marked as “hidden” in the viewing program (but not truly deleted), etc. We have seen quite a few entities, not all of them governmental, embarassed by a release where a “redaction” was the addition of a black box at a higher z-order than the redacted content — a box which can be easily undone if the document is in original format with all the presentation data intact. Once the document is printed and rescanned, the box is just another image artifact.

tqk (profile) says:

Are they somehow convinced the release of a database or spreadsheet would corrupt the data stored on their local drives?

No, it’d allow anyone to “corrupt” the answer they’re offering to give. “You asked “this”, we answered “this”, now we’re done.” You can take your sorting lines (or tuples) and summing columns stuff up with the 50s. Search is right out!

Jake says:

"Integrity of the Data"

I’m guessing it’s supposed to mean that anyone can alter a spreadsheet after receiving it in response to a FOIA request and make it appear as though it states something the original actually doesn’t. But that could easily be solved by posting the same document in its original format at the agency’s website. That way anyone can verify the accuracy of FOIAed documents posted elsewhere by private parties.

And how would said agency prove that the one on their website was the unaltered one? It’s not hard to falsify timestamps. Not that I honestly expect most government officials to be cunning enough to think of that, but then I’m not a raving conspiracy theorist.

beltorak (profile) says:

Welcome to 1991

> But that could easily be solved by posting the same document in its original format at the agency’s website.

They don’t even have to go that far. All they need to do is sign the damn thing. You would think (if you are a sane, rational being) that there should be a government agency charged with the mandate of improving safe and effective information technology practices (perhaps some sort of national cybersecurity division headed by some sort of national security agency), and could easily train other government agencies on how to use strong encrypti— oh, I think I see the problem.

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