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Home > Publications > Quill > Public Information Theft


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Monday, August 25, 2008
Public Information Theft

Breanne Coats

Donald W. Meyers was trying to earn his degree from Brigham Young University in the 1980s when he came face-to-face with one of America’s greatest fears: identity theft.

Collection agencies were writing him, wanting him to pay off the supposed debt he owed. A credit union he didn’t use contacted him about “his account.” The police eventually stepped in on Meyers’ behalf, but even they could not fix all his problems. Thankfully, the thieves were eventually caught and most of Meyers’ problems went with them.

Although every identity theft victim suffers differently, Meyers’ story is not uncommon. However, his reason for sharing the experience strays from the typical motives.

Officials frequently pass legislation that will close records containing personal information because they want to protect people from suffering the same fate as Meyers. For example, in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty released a statement in March saying the government must do more to protect the public from identity theft. He proposed closing or limiting access to things such as personal phone records and driver’s license data.

So while one might expect Meyers, a former victim of identity theft, to praise this type of legislation, he is actually a voice against these changes.

Meyers, a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune and a member of SPJ’s freedom of information committee, said identity thieves are being used to intimidate the public, much like terrorists. He says government agencies are able to take advantage of that fear, passing legislation to close documents unnecessarily.

“(The) government looks for any opportunity to close access to information,” he said.

Meyers said identity thieves are not filling out Freedom of Information Act requests to get the information they use to steal identities. He said they have more insidious and effective ways to get that information, such as dumpster diving for bank statements outside people’s homes and offices.

National epidemic

Records around the country are continuously being closed in the name of privacy and protection against identity theft. The Associated Press examined all 50 states’ laws that related to public information in 2006, looking at the five-year period following Sept. 11, 2001. The study showed that states passed 616 restrictive laws, but only 284 that loosened access.

AP writer Robert Tanner, a member of the national investigative team, was, at the time of the study, assigned to report on issues in state legislatures and government issues outside the national government.

Tanner said that while he tries not to make broad generalizations about AP’s findings, he did notice a decrease in records being closed because of security fears from 2001 to 2006, but it appeared privacy concerns were becoming more popular reasons to close records.

Tanner said he discovered another threat to records disclosure in a separate AP study. He said that study revealed that even when a person is found to have broken the Freedom of Information Act and refuses to give out an open record, the person is usually only given a “slap on the wrist,” if any type of punishment.

Journalism partly to blame

University of Arizona assistant journalism professor and SPJ’s freedom of information committee chairman David Cuillier did a study in 2002 to see how 402 random Washington state adults would respond to questions relating to freedom of the press and concerns for privacy. Cuillier said the study is just preliminary and suggests that more follow-up surveys be conducted.

However, using the results from his study, Cuillier found that people who feared privacy invasion and identity theft the most were the least supportive of having open access to records. His study and experiences helped Cuillier develop some suggestions on the topic of identity theft and its relation to records requests.

• Identity theft is a real concern for many people that can dramatically affect their lives. Don’t mock or downplay people’s concerns or problems, but rather report the truth without sensationalizing the issue.

• The media is partially to blame for creating paranoia about identity theft, and when reporters cover stories, they should make sure people understand the real facts about identity theft. Specifically, Cuillier suggests pointing out that thieves are not using public record requests to get their information. “As people become fearful of identity theft, they tend to be less supportive to access of public records,” Cuillier said. "Journalists should do their homework before they do a story about the dangers of identity theft.”

• Journalists need to make transparent to the public which documents they want open and why they want to use them. Cuillier said journalists must be able to show what benefits the public will get out of having open access to these documents. If the public can clearly see the benefits, it will be more supportive.

• If records in your state are being closed because of identity theft fears, try making that an angle of a story. Make sure to include what types of information those records held and how that information could have been used to uncover important public-interest stories. Use a follow-up story to see whether the closure of those documents really did help decrease identity theft in your state.

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