Friday, June 10, 2011

Sarah Palin's e-mail

Today is the day that the State of Alaska is releasing the e-mail messages from Sarah Palin's tenure as Governor.  News organizations that have requested a copy have to send someone to Juneau to pick up the paper copy, some 24,000 pages in total.  Geekdom in general is outraged.  Paper?  Travel to Juneau?  Why can't anyone who wants to just download the file?  Defenders of the action have pointed to limited bandwidth, the cost of server capacity, and so forth.  I think the reason is completely non-technical.

I spent three years on the permanent legislative staff for the General Assembly of Colorado.  Part of that job was interpreting what a variety of state laws actually meant in practice.  So my initial response was to pull up a copy of Alaska's open records law to see what it said.  Here's the first paragraph:
Unless specifically provided otherwise, the public records of all public agencies are open to inspection by the public under reasonable rules during regular office hours. The public officer having the custody of public records shall give on request and payment of the fee established under this section or AS 40.25.115 a certified copy of the public record.
"Open to inspection" usually means that you can look at a paper copy.  In most states, agencies are not required -- or even allowed -- to give the public access to their file cabinets, microfiche readers, or computers.  "During regular office hours" usually means that the requester has to come to the agency in order to perform that inspection.  But the real kicker is that phrase "shall give... a certified copy".  As a general rule, the word "shall" means that it's a requirement: any copy that leaves the agency premises must be certified.  And certified, while less demanding than notarized, generally means some identifiable mark added to the copy that indicates someone at the agency says the copy is accurate.

Is a file downloaded over the internet certified?  Almost certainly not.  Consider the site where I obtained the copy of the open records statute.  Not only was it not certified, but there were multiple statements to the effect that, despite their best efforts, there was the possibility that the copy was inaccurate.  The Alaskan state agency doesn't appear to have that choice -- they can only distribute copies whose accuracy they certify.

How about a write-once CD?  A better chance there.  At least it's a physical medium and can have a physical sticker (or whatever) on it.  There's still a potential problem in that the CD contains thousands of individual documents (e-mail messages).  Can a single certification cover all of them?  Someone in Alaska has probably decided that question.  I don't know the answer, but I would guess that each "document" has to be certified, at least in a "page n of m" sense.  Internal to the agency, I would worry about control of the process, though.  The CD is a copy of one (or thousands) of computer files.  How secure was the process that accumulated the files so that a master CD could be created?

Which pretty much leaves paper.  The sheer unwieldiness of the medium makes it easier to lock down the process by which the certified copy is created.  Multiple people involved in changes.  Locked doors.  If need be, numbers added in blue ink by hand.  Far from the ideal solution -- and I expect that there are a number of people inside the Governor's Office that are saying "This is so stupid!" -- but known to keep you within the requirements of the statute.

Napoleon is reputed to have said "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."  IT progresses so rapidly that it is impossible for the law to keep up.  Never ascribe to malice or incompetence that which is adequately explained by statute.

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