Good FOIA Gone Bad

When I saw the map of gun owners printed online by a publication owned by The Gannett Company and the public reaction, I thought of my last supervisor. He was a wise man with whom I could discuss any idea without fear of ridicule or repercussion. When the ideas were good, he would fully support their implementation. When the ideas were bad, he would not hesitate to share why he thought so in a way that was not negative or discouraging. And in the end, I found his judgement in almost everything to be spot on. While we never discussed publishing the names and addresses of gun owners, we did talk about doing this for ordinance violators – people who had run down homes, etc. And this was one of those ideas he thought would be bad. He just thought it was going a little too far; people would not tolerate seeing their name and address publicly displayed for something like an ordinance violation. It's one of those examples where you shouldn't do something just because you can. Based on public reaction to the gun map, it appears he made a good call.

Of course, I see this as fallout from the FOIA laws, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that newspapers were the primary lobbyists for those laws. People are quick to defend FOIA because of the need for open and transparent government, and I agree we do need FOIA for those agencies that are not open and transparent. (Although when you do have an open and transparent government, FOIA actually slows down the process and causes more problems than it helps, but that is another story.) The reason FOIA is part of this problem is it does provide for full disclosure of all government information pursuant to the law yet has little language indicating what can be done with that information. And government has a lot of data on citizens, more so than people probably realize. So the map becomes the example of how this can go so very wrong and demonstrates the need to change FOIA laws so people act responsibly with the information they receive. Particularly when it involves personal information about citizens.

Some of the fallout from this has led to someone posting personal information easily found on the Internet about those involved with the printing of the map. The information can be found in an article, Sauce for the goose or, home address and phone number of Journal-News publisher. Of course, much of the information has since been removed by these jounalists because I imagine they do not want public scrutiny of themselves.

While turning the tables on people might help them better understand the repercussions of their actions, it doesn't solve the problem that FOIA laws provide the gateway to personal information with few to no limits on its use. Fortunately a New York State Senator, Greg Ball, has decided to take action. According to a press release on the New York Senate site, he "multi-sponsored Assembly bill 820, legislation which would prohibit the public disclosure of information in an application for a pistol license with exceptions for prosecutors and police conducting an active investigation." While this might help gun owners in that state, I hope that at some point, legislators everywhere realize this could occur with any personal information the government stores. And legislators should discuss and decide if it is better to change laws to restrict the release of personal information regardless of the purpose for which it was collected or to regulate the use of that information.