June 22, 2004
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.
I have received your letter and the correspondence attached to it.
By way of background, you requested on behalf of the Port Washington Union Free School District from the Nassau County Department of Assessment "records or portions thereof pertaining to outstanding tax certioraris for individual properties in Port Washington which are related to school taxes of $50,000 or greater." In response to the request, you were advised that:
"...this information is not in hard copy form nor can it be printed out based on our existing computer program. Our agency would have to write a specialized computer program to reply to this request. Under the New York Freedom of Information law, if the agency does not maintain the records in the format requested, the law does not require - - nor is the agency obligated - - to develop new programs or reprogram its computer data to produce the information sought."
You asked whether I "agree with this answer." From my perspective, based on the direction provided in a relatively recent judicial decision, the issue involves the County’s ability to generate or extract the data of your interest with reasonable effort.
By way of background, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to agency records, such as those of a county, and §86(4) of the Law defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based upon the language quoted above, if information is maintained in some physical form, it would constitute a "record" subject to rights of access conferred by the Law. Further, the definition of "record" includes specific reference to computer tapes and discs, and it was held more than twenty years ago that "[i]nformation is increasingly being stored in computers and access to such data should not be restricted merely because it is not in printed form" [Babigian v. Evans, 427 NYS 2d 688, 691 (1980); aff'd 97 AD 2d 992 (1983); see also, Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)].
Questions and issues have arisen in relation to information maintained electronically concerning §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states in part that an agency is not required to create or prepare a record in response to a request. In this regard, often information stored electronically can be extracted by means of keystrokes or queries entered on a keyboard. While some have contended that those kinds of minimal steps involve programming or reprogramming, and, therefore, creating a new record, so narrow a construction would in many instances tend to defeat the purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, particularly as information is increasingly being stored electronically. If electronic information can be extracted or generated with reasonable effort, I believe that an agency must do so.
Most pertinent in my opinion is a decision concerning a request for records, data and reports maintained by the New York City Department of Health regarding "childhood blood-level screening levels" (New York Public Interest Research Group v. Cohen and the New York City Department of Health, Supreme Court, New York County, July 16, 2001; hereafter "NYPIRG"). The agency maintained much of the information in its "LeadQuest" database. In that case, the Court described the facts, in brief, as follows:
"...the request for information in electronic format was denied on the following grounds:
‘[S]uch records cannot be prepared in an electronic format with individual identifying information redacted, without the Department creating a unique computer program, which the Department is not required to prepare pursuant to Public Officer’s Law §89(3).’
"Instead, the agency agreed to print out the information at a cost of twenty-five cents per page, and redact the relevant confidential information by hand. Since the records consisted of approximately 50,000 pages, this would result in a charge to petitioner of $12,500."
It was conceded by an agency scientist that:
"...several months would be required to prepare a printed paper record with hand redaction of confidential information, while it would take only a few hours to program the computer to compile the same data. He also confirmed that computer redaction is less prone to error than manual redaction."
In consideration of the facts, the Court wrote that:
"The witnesses at the hearing established that DOH would only be performing queries within LeadQuest, utilizing existing programs and software. It is undisputed that providing the requested information in electronic format would save time, money, labor and other resources - maximizing the potential of the computer age.
"It makes little sense to implement computer systems that are faster and have massive capacity for storage, yet limit access to and dissemination of the material by emphasizing the physical format of a record. FOIL declares that the public is entitled to maximum access to public records [Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY2d 567, 571 (1979)]. Denying petitioner’s request based on such little inconvenience to the agency would violate this policy."
Based on the foregoing, it was concluded that:
"To sustain respondents’ positions would mean that any time the computer is programmed to provide less than all the information stored therein, a new record would have been prepared. Here all that is involved is that DOH is being asked to provide less than all of the available information. I find that in providing such limited information DOH is providing data from records ‘possessed or maintained’ by it. There is no reason to differentiate between data redacted by a computer and data redacted manually insofar as whether or not the redacted information is a record ‘possessed or maintained’ by the agency.
"Moreover, rationality is lacking for a policy that denies a FOIL request for data in electronic form when to redact the confidential information would require only a few hours, whereas to perform the redaction manually would take weeks or months (depending on the number of employees engaged), and probably would not be as accurate as computer generated redactions."
When requests involve similar considerations, in my opinion, responses to them based on the precedent offered in NYPIRG must involve the disclosure of data stored electronically for which there is no basis for a denial of access. In short, if the County has the ability to generate or extract the data of your interest with reasonable effort, based on NYPIRG, I believe that it is obliged to do so.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Loren Schindler