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By Dick Weisinger
An interesting fight has developed in San Francisco over getting public access to metadata that accompanies any city documents that are released. The city has had a policy of releasing only PDF versions of documents, most of which were originally created in Microsoft Word. But by converting to PDF, any tracking or metadata contained in the original document is lost.
An appeal was made under Freedom of Information to make publicly available the original Word file that was used to author the document, but the City Attorney’s office balked at such a request. Their argument is that Word documents are less secure and could be much more easily manipulated should the public web site hosting the documents be hacked.
When the requests for documents accompanied by original metadata were first made, many within the city were puzzled by the request. The city of San Francisco has gotten an education in the meaning of metadata. The discussion has also touched on software that could be used to “scrub” any documents of metadata that get released and equate the use of such software to shredding of public information.
The case may be a precident in public record law and could push the discussion to the level of new legislation. It is a question about the transparency of government.
PDF and the free Adobe Reader have clear advantages over proprietary authoring tools like Word for distributing documents. What may likely happen is that government agencies may decide to offer both PDF and the original authored file.