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Sunshine Advisory Bulletin

A Bulletin on Iowa Open Meetings and Public Records Laws
By Attorney General Tom Miller -- October 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!


Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings may call the Iowa Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman Office -- toll-free at 888-IA-OMBUD (888-426-6283.)

"Sunshine Advisory" bulletins provide information on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws -- our "Sunshine Laws." The bulletins are a resource for public officials and citizens. Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

Iowa Attorney General's Office: Hoover Building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319.

On the Web: www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org.