February 22, 2010
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
We are in receipt of your request for an advisory opinion regarding application of the Freedom of Information Law to a request “to sit at the Assessor’s Official Computer, put a flash drive into the CPU and download whatever data he wants.” The applicant making this request has already received a data file from the RPS program for the Town, and a data file for the entire County. In this regard, we offer the following comments.
First, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that would require an agency to allow the public to have direct access to an agency’s operating computerized database, and we would strongly advise against it, for obvious security reasons.
Second, when an agency receives a request for data maintained on a computerized database, in our opinion, providing an electronic copy of the data that is required to be made publicly available is sufficient.
As you may know, the Freedom of Information Law was recently amended in relation to information that is maintained electronically. Section 87(5)(a) states in relevant part that “An agency shall provide records on the medium requested by a person, if the agency can reasonably make such copy...” Similarly, §89(3)(a) states in part that: “When an agency has the ability to retrieve or extract a record or data maintained in a computer storage system with reasonable effort, it shall be required to do so.” We believe that those new provisions are based on a recognition that records and data are now frequently maintained in electronic storage systems, and that to give effect to the intent of the Freedom of Information Law, government agencies are required, when they have the ability to do so, “reasonably” or “with reasonable effort”, to disclose them in a manner consistent with developments in information technology. In our opinion this does not include providing the public with direct access to the agency’s operating computer system.
While we applaud the Town’s election to provide assessment data to the public on a computerized stand-alone system, there is no legal requirement to do so.
On behalf of the Committee on Open Government, we hope that this is helpful.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis