ID theft scare tactics: Fight fear with fear

A state employees union is trying to use privacy fears to keep the Daily Oklahoman from being able to find government employees who are sex offenders.

The paper requested a database of all state employees, including their name, date of birth, job description, start date, salary, agency, title and job description. Pretty standard for making sure our public employees aren’t criminals, violating nepotism policies, etc. In response, the union issued an alert urging public employees to contact the paper and their legislators to shut down the information and demand “your private information be kept confidential.”

Well, I hate to break it to them, but they are public employees and that isn’t private information anymore. The fact is any identity thief can get DOB on anyone pretty quickly. Heck, anyone can find mine online (, along with my salary (Arizona Republic posted university employee salaries and in the university library), home address (Pima County Assessor’s Office), etc.

So how do we combat this fear mongering? Saying that the horse is already out of the barn doesn’t convince a lot of people, although it sometimes works (have them run their own names through

Another tactic: Fight fear with fear. Show people why it’s important to have that information public: sex offenders and criminals molesting our children and loved ones. We need to show people that the public good of having the information out there outweighs the drawbacks (because it does!). Paul Monies, database editor for the Oklahoman, explains it well in a column. I don’t really like having to use fear to keep records open – I would rather have a nice discussion of government accountability, democratic self-governance, etc. But that doesn’t hit home with people. Pedophiles molesting their children does.

The response will likely be, “Well, government makes sure there aren’t pedophiles working in government. I trust the government to keep me safe.” Funny that people will argue that and then five minutes later say how they don’t trust government. But they do. Gather up all the examples of where the system didn’t work. A great resource is the Investigative Reporters and Editors “Extra! Extra!” descriptions of reports. You’ll find lots of examples of government agencies failing to police themselves.

We need DOBs to make the world better. If we close public records, only identity thieves will have DOBs, and we will all be worse off.

FOI soundbites: Focus on the key benefit of transparency

This morning I talked a little on CNN‘s American Morning show about proposed legislation in some states to make 911 tapes secret (clip). A victim rights person also was on the segment, arguing for the provisions to protect victim privacy. The segment was inspired by a recent Associated Press story on the issue.

I made the point that having tapes public can do some good (e.g., public awareness brought to the Toyota accelerator problem because of a 911 tape of a crash), and that journalists should and generally do follow the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics to weigh the public good against the harm in broadcasting tapes. But afterward I kicked myself because I didn’t make the most important point: Making the tapes secret will actually hurt victims, not protect them.

We make those records public in all but a few states so that our government will operate better, and to identify problems that need fixing. Because 911 operators know that calls can be aired in their community they treat victims with respect and do a better job. It’s human nature. If government can operate in secret then it can do bad things and get away with it.

When covering public records issues I think it’s important for us to focus on that basic fundamental reason for transparency. We get bogged down in legislative details and sometimes forget the big picture. I know next time I will write down that bullet point and make sure to get it in my soundbite. Transparency makes government better.

Investigate sexual assaults on your campus

The Investigative News Network released its first major project, on the lack of punishment by universities against rapists, based on an incredible amount of records gathering, interviews and surveys. They even explain how you can do the same reporting at your local university.

The year-long project, conducted by seven different state and regional investigative reporting groups, revealed a culture of indifference and lack of punishment for sexual assaults, sometimes leading to repeat offenders. The project also exposed a system shrouded in secrecy and under-reporting crime statistics to the public.

What I love about this project, other than the awesome reporting and writing, is a special Web page set up to help others do the same reporting. The Reporter’s Toolkit lays out the law, how to investigate the cases, and provides a long list of resources. Outstanding!

Also, this report shows, once again, that universities rarely report accurate crime statistics (see, for example, a project in 2004 that showed how universities in the Pacific Northwest under-reported crime stats, despite federal law (Clery Act) requiring they tell the public what is going on). It goes to show that you can’t trust everything in a public record – numbers are sometimes twisted to make agencies look better. That’s why it is important to triangulate – look at other places that might have similar records, interview people, and find out what’s really going on.

FOI ethics: Weigh benefits and harm on airing 911 tapes

A good story today by The Associated Press highlighted the effort underway by some states to close 911 records because of a few media outlets airing distressed callers. I am quoted as saying that it’s important to keep the records open so we can make sure our public safety agencies are working correctly. One government person argues that people will be less reluctant to call 911 if the tapes are public. That’s just silly – as if a person in dire need is going to assess the public records issues before making a call.

However, this raises a very good point about FOI ethics. Just because we have access to records doesn’t mean we have to put them out there for everyone to see. We can choose some restraint, voluntarily, weighing the benefit with the harm. Airing the tape of a woman screaming and sobbing might be gripping for sweeps, but is it really necessary? Maybe, maybe not, depending on the situation. But we must think it through carefully and be able to explain to the average person the public benefit of airing the tape. With rights to accessing records comes responsibility, and if we don’t take that responsibility seriously we’ll lose those rights.

DUI checkpoint records reveal vehicle pot o’ gold in California


The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley used DUI checkpoint data to discover police and tow-truck companies raking in millions of dollars in seized vehicles  from illegal immigrants, according to a Feb. 13 report. Reporter Ryan Gabrielson analyzed checkpoint data, car seizure records, census data and other documents to find law enforcement making big bucks from the seizures. See his explanation of how he did the story, including how he used SPSS statistical software to examine whether Hispanic neighborhoods were being targeted. Request to see impound records from your city or county to find out if seizures are up, particularly as local governments are strapped for cash. Good job, Ryan (one of the expert record hounds quoted in our Art of Access book).