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When is public data non-public?

If it's public information on paper, is the electronic version also a public record?

As a techie, I tend to think so. The electronic version carries more information, is easier to work with, and is sometimes easier to authenticate.

The city of Phoenix, AZ, recently argued the opposite in court, and ultimately lost. Someone was suing the city and demanded some public records. The city provided paper copies, some of which appeared to be backdated. The plaintiff demanded the electronic copies so he could examine the metadata. The city refused, saying that the metadata was not public record. Two courts agreed, but the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed. So a court is on record saying that, if the document is a public record, the electronic form is also a public record.

The actual incident involved a police officer who was suing Phoenix over alleged employment discrimination. City records regarding his performance were considered public records, so he demanded copies to support his suit. He demanded the electronic copies after reviewing suspicious paper copies. The city refused and they went to court. The city argued that they couldn't afford to review metadata for public release.

Normally I'm inclined to think of metadata as automatic information that backs up the visible word. Metadata content is so rich that we can't always anticipate how it might be interpreted. It's true, however, that it automatically notes things we might otherwise wish to forget. Who can forget Microsoft's embarrassment when the metadata in their annual report indicated it had been created on a Macintosh?

When is it unethical to use a simple URL?

In a way, this reminds me of the Harvard B-school admissions incident in 2005.

Several schools, including Harvard's Business School, MIT's Sloan School, and CMU, used a company called "ApplyYourself" to put the application and notification process on-line. The company posted the admissions results on the school web sites far ahead of the actual announcement. Someone figured out how to craft a URL to check admission status and posted the explanation on a Web site.

Harvard, MIT, and CMU all rejected applicants who were detected visiting their status page ahead of the official announcement. Harvard rejected over 100 applicants, calling it an "ethics violation." One official likened it to "sneaking into the admissions office at night," though it involved no breaking-and-entering, or even leaving one's home. The applicants only had to type a standard URL.

Personally, I was sympathetic with the critic who suggested the schools were trying to cover up their own sloppiness (actually, the vendor's sloppiness) by blaming the applicants. It's hard to argue that the data is secret if it's on-line and unprotected.

When is a computer visit unethical?

One of my first consulting jobs was as part of a team investigating a dispute between two Wall Street firms. This was in the very early days of the Web. Both firms were on the Internet and neither had a web site. A techie at one company was poking at our client's Internet connection to see what the company had on-line. There was a 'default' web page provided by the firewall and perhaps a couple of other services. The techie poked at the services to see what was available - nothing - and went on to other work.

Our client saw the activity in their logs and called us to investigate - to confirm that the techie hadn't actually penetrated their site. They also threatened legal action against the techie's employer, who hired their own consultant to investigate the incident. I don't know what happened to the techie, but I suspect each company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on forensic investigations.

This sort of visit happens all the time to modern Internet sites. At the time, though, people were still gauging the threat. Wall Street has always had a lot of money at risk, one way or another. If the techie had somehow extracted a lot of information about our client, the discovery would have justified the investigation.

However, it was obvious to us from the start that nothing much had happened. Somehow this investigation was an important move in the power games played between the firms, so we did the client's bidding.

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