Metadata, privacy, access and the public service.

On May 15, 2014 the OIPC (office of the information and privacy commissioner) released order F14-13 [pdf] denying a Section 43 application (to disregard a FOI request).  Being the data/privacy policy wonk that I am, I tend to read all the orders put out by the OIPC — there’s usually something interesting. This one was really interesting.

Someone had filed a request for the metadata associated with government emails — that is, who emails whom, and when — but excluding the content of those emails. The Open Data community has long mused about filing such a request, as it could be the single most important dataset for understanding how our government works, however, it was always considered extremely audacious to file as the public service was sure to have a strong reaction to an unprecedented level of analysis of their communications. On May 15, I had no idea it had been filed, or that there was even a case before the commissioner.

So, upon seeing the OIPC ruling, I filed an FOI request with Citizens Services (now denied) for the Section 43 application and the supporting documentation, that resulted in the order. I was hoping to learn why the province felt it should ignore this request, and under what justification. I also contacted the privacy commissioner’s office to see if there was any way to become an intervenor on the file and provide an amicus-type opinion for the commissioners consideration.

Through the opendatabc mailing list, I posted the story, and Paul Ramsey came forward and shared that it was his request. For those who don’t know, Paul is a brilliant data geek, having helped build the PostgreSQL database software that powers much of the internet — if anyone has the ability to work with this information, it is he.

Moving ahead 30 days later, I have my FOI answer — records prepared for an officer of the legislature (ie the OIPC) are outside the scope of FOIPPA and my request for the Section 43 application and documentation was denied outright by Citizens Services. The OIPC process wasn’t fruitful either, as the Section 43 matter had already been ruled on and they weren’t sure the file was going to come back to them — so no avenue for comment there. (I’m now told, via Paul, that the request has been denied again subsequent to the Section 43 ruling and has gone back to the commissioner for another round. I’m still hoping to be able to provide comments.)

This issue might be the single most controversial FOI request filed in BC history — and it will set a lasting and groundbreaking precedent. At question is whether the public service is accountable to the public in its metadata records. The public interest in the metadata cannot be understated, nor can the complexity of the access rights in question.

As a comparative however, CSEC, Canada’s signals intelligence agency spends obscene amounts of money analyzing the metadata of foreign governments — under the guise of increasing Canadian economic advantage. Will the FOI legislation, allowing citizens to oversee our own government, be given the same funding and economic priority as say, CSEC spying on Brazil’s government?

A core question is that of whether it is ‘just metadata’? — privacy commissioners have disagreed citing privacy implications, spy agencies have argued its no big deal arguing it has different privacy expectations over say a telephone wiretap, but — and here’s the crucial part — when it comes to transparency of the public service, where there are explicitly waived privacy expectations found in email policy documents and a crucial right of public access, what will the balance be for public service metadata?

In my opinion, this could be the single most valuable dataset ever released under FOI and this request will likely define public sector metadata policy for generations to come.

It is crucial that we get it right.