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October 1, 2005

Can a Person "Examine" and "Copy" Electronic Data?

Yes -- Electronic Data is a Public Record!

Many public records are stored on paper, and the public can easily examine and copy paper documents. But more and more public records are stored as data in a computer. Can the public "examine" and "copy" electronic data? How do public officials provide access to the data stored in computers? Must public officials maintain the software necessary to retrieve electronic data?

Iowa law specifically defines a "public record" to include electronic information stored in a computer. Iowa Code sec. 22.1(3).

Here are guidelines on the public's right to access information stored in a computer:

  • If electronic data is an open record, public officials must provide access. Public officials must make accessible any information stored in a computer that would be open for examination and copying if the information were stored on paper.
  • If the public requests electronic data that is open, public officials must have computer software available to retrieve the data. As long as all data is accessible, if specialized programming is required to assemble data in response to a specific request, public officials can charge the reasonable, actual cost of the specialized programming.
  • If electronic data commingles open and confidential information, computer software must be able to separate open from confidential information. If government software cannot retrieve open information without revealing confidential information, public officials must find a way -- at their expense -- to provide access to the open information, even if new software is needed.

Remember: The public is entitled to "examine" and "copy" electronic data that would be an open record if stored on paper. Public officials should plan for public access to electronic data when designing software -- before the data is entered!

Sunshine advisories are a general resource for government officials and citizens on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws – our "sunshine” laws.  Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

The Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) is an independent board that the Iowa Legislature established specifically to address open meetings and open records-related matters.  The IPIB provides information to the public and governmental entities on "sunshine" issues.

The IPIB, which has jurisdiction and authority to investigate and enforce Iowa's open meetings and open records laws, enables citizens to file a complaint if they believe that someone is violating these laws.

Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings should contact the Iowa Public Information Board. Iowa Public Information Board.

Wallace Building, Third Floor
502 East 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319


Phone: 515-725-1781

Updated December 1, 2014

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