Woman battles to shield cops’ data
OLYMPIA – For years, when Karen Schweigert’s husband came home from work, he quickly backed his work-issued vehicle out of sight into their garage.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t allowed to take the car home. It was that he didn’t want passers-by to know he was a state trooper.
Police “get threatened every day,” said Schweigert, an Arlington mom and attorney. “Ninety percent of it rolls off their back, but some of it, you say ‘Maybe there’s something there.’ ”
She says that same worry is fueling her attempt to block state officials from giving a Seattle newspaper the names, birth dates, photos and other information for every Washington State Patrol officer. A Spokane County judge is scheduled to hear arguments over the injunction Friday in a case that pits concerns over individual privacy against state laws guaranteeing government accountability.
Open-records advocates say taxpayers have a right to know who they’re paying, and that in a world full of common names – more than 200 “John Smiths” are registered to vote in Washington state – birth dates are critical to figuring out who’s who. They also have helped find individuals drawing multiple, full-time government paychecks, weed out phantom government employees, and even identify dead voters.
The case is only the latest of increasing attempts – in court or the Legislature, and particularly by public employees – to rewrite long-standing concepts of what’s private.
Like marriages, real estate records and the names of people on the public payroll, birth dates have been public information for decades, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, a media attorney in Seattle.
“It’s just not a secret,” she said. And there’s no evidence that criminals are filing government public-records requests to steal identities or stalk police, she said. A 2006 study often cited by Washington state officials found that stolen wallets, stolen purses and dishonest friends and relatives are to blame for most identity theft.
Lawmakers have repeatedly tightened the laws over what information can be released about government employees in recent years. Since 2005, lawmakers have made the following data about public workers off-limits: tax information, cell phone numbers, Social Security numbers, student and patient files, personal e-mail addresses, emergency contact information and information about family members.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna cited the same arguments as Earl-Hubbard’s earlier this year when McKenna turned down Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ request to push a new law to exempt public employees’ dates of birth from public disclosure. Birth dates, McKenna said, are an important tool to keep government accountable. They help government watchdogs check for phantom workers, illegal voters, or an official awarding government jobs to his relatives. Also, he said, birth dates are already widely available on the Internet.
“For practical purposes, there is simply no privacy interest left to protect” in this case, he wrote to Nickels.
Schweigert says her beef isn’t with investigative journalists watchdogging law enforcement. Her concern is that gang members or other criminals could match lists with online databases to target police families at home.
That concern is echoed by former state troopers association president Robert Thurston, who also urged the court to order the information withheld. Giving out full names, dates of birth and photos of all officers, he said, “places all officers and more importantly their families in unnecessary danger.”
Also, Schweigert maintains, giving out full names and dates of birth invites identity theft. It ought to be enough, she says, to only give out last names, badge numbers and perhaps age or year of birth.
One Web site that particularly upsets Schweigert is the conservative blog Sound Politics’ database of every registered voter in Washington. The data – millions of names, birth dates and down-to-the-block street addresses – has for years been available to anyone willing to pay a few dollars for a disk from the Secretary of State’s Office.
But blogger Stefan Sharkansky, as part of a crusade to scrub the rolls of illegal voters, has posted the data on an easily searchable Web page, www.soundpolitics.com/voterlookup.html.
“With this ridiculous Web site, people can come right to our home,” Schweigert said. “In the law enforcement community, it is not-so-affectionately known as the Identity Theft Database.”
Already, she said, she knows of state troopers who have decided not to register to vote, simply to keep their home address private.
Until recently, the state considered birth dates of voters confidential. Lawmakers changed that in 2006, partly to make it easier to review voter registrations and partly because birth dates are already public information available through the state Department of Health.
Sharkansky says he feels “a little uncomfortable” with the thought of anyone seeking individual information about police officers. He said he agrees that they, journalists or anyone involved in a dispute have an interest in protecting themselves.
“On the other hand, you can’t operate a fair election if the voters are secret,” Sharkansky said. While actual ballots are secret, registration documents must be public, he said, to ensure voters are legitimate.
Sharkansky is skeptical that a name, partial address and date of birth is enough to gain access to anyone’s financial records.
“You also need Social Security numbers, which I don’t have access to nor would post if I did,” he said.