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Monday, May 22, 2023

File Layouts in City Database System Expressly Exempt From FOIA

The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a public body in a FOIA challenge involving a request for city's database system records used for enforcing parking, red-light, and speed-camera tickets. Chapman v. Chicago Department of Finance. The city had denied the request, citing section 7(1)(o) of FOIA which exempts the following:

Administrative or technical information associated with automated data processing operations, including but not limited to software, operating protocols, computer program abstracts, file layouts, source listings, object modules, load modules, user guides, documentation pertaining to all logical and physical design of computerized systems, employee manuals, and any other information that, if disclosed, would jeopardize the security of the system or its data or the security of materials exempt under this Section.

The circuit court ruled in the city's favor but the Appellate Court reversed and ordered the city to provide the records to the requester. On appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, the city argued that release of this data in the form of the file layout of the database system could jeopardize the security of the city's systems by providing detailed information that could facilitate cyber-attacks. The city also argued that the exemption in section 7(1)(o) established a "per se" exemption for file layouts and that there was no requirement to establish harm.

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the city, finding that section 7(1)(o) squarely applied to the FOIA request and supported the city's denial. The Court determined that the inclusion of 10 specific items in 7(1)(o) demonstrated an intent by the legislature that these items be expressly exempt from disclosure because there was a presumption of harm - in other words, the public body did not have to demonstrate that release would jeopardize the security of its system because it was presumed it would. The Court concluded that section 7(1)(o) provides a "narrow and reasonable exemption to protect" a government's automated data processing systems at risk of unnecessary harm, especially from the harm threatened by cyberattacks. As a result, the Court upheld the city's denial of the FOIA request finding that the file layouts were expressly exempt from FOIA.


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