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Providing a Record in the Format Requested by the Applicant

April 8, 2024 - Ron Kruzeniski, Information and Privacy Commissioner

Applicants often request records in a format which is convenient for their use i.e., paper, word spreadsheet, Excel or comma-separated values (CSV) or pdf. I find that public bodies are comfortable providing records in paper format but when it comes to electronic formats, they lean toward a pdf format. It appears they believe that the data is more secure in pdf and thus, the applicant cannot change or manipulate the data.

Although I am not a security expert, my information is that the belief that the pdf format is tamper-proof is not true.

First, if a public body provides a record in paper format, an applicant can scan the record, white out parts, or edit the scanned version, re-print it and distribute it or post it on the internet.

If a public body provides the record in word or excel, the applicant can open the document, edit it and then distribute it or post it. Similarly, an applicant can do the same with a record in CSV format.

Finally, if the applicant has Adobe Acrobat Pro, and receives a record in pdf, the applicant can do a number of things. He or she can edit it, save it as a word document or export it into an excel spreadsheet, and distribute it or post it to the internet.

So whatever format is used, a person intent on manipulation can change it and distribute the changed record. Public bodies need to accept there is a risk of people altering the records they provide and remember their duty to assist (section 5.1 of FOIP and LA FOIP). In other words, provide the record in the format requested.

Of course, if it is electronically impossible to produce it in the format requested, the public body should assist by providing the record in the next most practical format (subsections 10(2) to 10(4) of FOIP and LA FOIP).

The best advice to public bodies is to keep and store the record in the format they provided it in, to the applicant. If the applicant manipulates and publishes, the public body can say that was not the record that they provided and can prove it as they have the original and a copy of what was sent.

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