March 17, 2003
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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
I have received your letter in which you sought assistance concerning a request made under the Freedom of Information Law to a town supervisor for the front of a check. You indicated that the photocopy of the check was too small to read its contents and that your request for a "normal size copy" was refused. You added that the account number was deleted.
In this regard, first, I believe that every law, including the Freedom of Information Law, must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. In my view, when an agency makes a photocopy in response to a request, the photocopy should be of a size and quality appropriate to enable an average person to read its contents.
Second, with respect to the account number, you did not specify the nature of that item, i.e., whether it relates to a personal account, a town or other account. If it is personal, in my opinion, the denial of access would have been consistent with law.
As a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. Pertinent with respect to a personal account number would be §87(2)(b), which authorizes an agency to deny access to records insofar as disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." From my perspective, that exception could properly be asserted in that circumstance.
If the account number relates to the Town or an entity other than a person, I note that, for several years, §87(2)(i) authorized an agency to withhold "computer access codes." Based on its legislative history, that provision was intended to permit agencies to withhold access codes which if disclosed would provide the recipient of a code with the ability to gain unauthorized access to information. Insofar as disclosure would enable a person with an access code to gain access to information without the authority to do so, or to shift, add, delete or alter information, i.e., to make electronic transfers, I believe that a bank account or ID number could justifiably have been withheld. Section 87(2)(i) was recently amended in recognition of the need to guarantee that government agencies have the ability to ensure the security of their information and information systems. That provision currently states that an agency may withhold records or portions of records which "if disclosed, would jeopardize an agency's capacity to guarantee the security of its information technology assets, such assets encompassing both electronic information systems and infrastructures." If disclosure of a bank account number could enable a person to gain access to or in any way alter or adversely affect an agency's electronic information or electronic information systems, I believe that it may justifiably be withheld.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Supervisor, Town of Clinton