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Home > Publications > Quill > Watch out for privacy creeps


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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Watch out for privacy creeps

Joel Campbell

Call it “privacy creep.” It’s an ever-growing list of public records that officials close in the name of privacy and identity theft. Because bad ideas spread, journalists and freedom of information advocates should review the following examples to make sure privacy creep isn’t already closing down records in their hometowns or states.

Police records

The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Phoenix and some South Carolina agencies have begun withholding some crime information, citing privacy and identity theft as reasons.

In Phoenix, the police said they would no longer release birth dates of criminals, addresses where crimes occur and names of injured victims. Phoenix city attorneys said a new state statute about identity theft trumps the older Arizona public records law.

Tim McGuire, a professor at Arizona State University, said, “In the case of suspects, I think it’s a disaster to not include information like (dates of birth) because it’s going to lead to the real danger of mistaken identity.”

Public employee records

Watch out for public employee unions, which may be trying to bargain or litigate away public access to employee salary, benefits and sex abuse allegation information.

In Washington state, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in August that allows education officials to keep secret allegations of unsubstantiated sexual abuse. The issue was brought before the court by teachers from three school districts. The teachers asked the courts to prevent their districts from releasing their identities in response to a public-records request by The Seattle Times. The newspaper wanted the records as part of an investigation of coaches who sexually abused students yet continued to be employed in the public schools, according to The Seattle Times. The investigation, published in 2003, found 159 coaches in Washington who were fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to rape.

Health records

Ever since it became federal law, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act has been cited by local governments as a reason not to release even the basic information about accidents, crime and workplace injuries.

SPJ joined an amicus brief in a case where the government wants to keep secret the identities of those long buried in a cemetery at a mental health hospital in Nebraska. A state-owned mental hospital doesn’t want a historical society to have access to people buried on the grounds from 1909 to 1959, claiming they can’t release the records because it would reveal they had mental disorders and violate HIPAA.

SPJ FOI Committee Chairman David Cuillier wrote: “This is a great example of where these well-intentioned laws are stretched beyond their limits to hide information in the name of privacy. First, the people have been dead for at least 50 years, so their privacy interests have long passed. Second, it’s important for people to know the names of people who have died in the custody of our government so we can make sure the system is working.

“Journalists with access to this kind of information have found awful abuses at mental health hospitals. If this information is kept secret, then the government will be able to hide all sorts of abuses, all in the name of protecting privacy.”

VOTER REGISTRATION records

Saying that the database of registered voters is a gold mine for identity thieves, Utah legislators passed a law last year that removed exact birthdates from public records and requires the government to report only ages of registered voters. For the most part, this scheme might work until the public or journalists need to compare two voters who were the same age with the same name.

Court records

Many states have now completed policies that guide what is available online to the public. If an online records policy has not been created, journalists should get involved in the process. If the policy has been implemented, journalists should compare what is available online versus in the courthouse public file.

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