There are legitimate concerns about privacy and identity theft.
But they do not and should not justify the sweeping closure of public records that the Washington Legislature is now considering. Senate Bill 6079 passed the Senate with a one-vote margin and is now before the House.
Legislators should be especially wary of falling for the deceptive scare tactics being used by the SEIU 775 union in its efforts to gut the state Public Records Act.
The public records in question, dates of birth of public employees and voters, are essential to holding the government accountable and protecting public safety.
Disclosing these records does not erode privacy or cause identity theft.
“The fact of the matter is these dates of birth are all available already,” said Jeff Chester, a national expert on consumer protection and privacy who leads the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C.
“These data brokers have them, they’re available multiple ways,” he said. “If you’re not getting it from one place you’re getting it from another.”
What identity thieves would like to obtain — if they haven’t already through massive data breaches such as Experian’s or Premera’s — is truly sensitive information like Social Security numbers and credit information.
Washington’s Public Records Act already addresses these risks with numerous exemptions.
Sensitive information that could be used for identity theft, such as Social Security numbers, cannot be disclosed. Nor can information about vulnerable populations, including children and crime victims.
Among the information that’s still available, dates of birth are essential to hold government accountable.
The media relies on this information to perform its watchdog function, such as the Times’ “Coaches who Prey” series that found 98 coaches who had been reprimanded or fired for sexual misconduct were still coaching or teaching.
Instead of hiding public information that enabled that reporting, the Legislature responded by passing three bills to better protect children. Amid the #MeToo movement, it’s unfathomable that lawmakers would make such vital information harder to find.
Full dates of birth were also essential to pinpoint the extent of voter fraud in the disputed gubernatorial election in 2004. They enabled the Times to cross-check voter rolls with other public records to find exactly how many votes were cast by felons or in the name of deceased voters. This highlighted systemic problems and established that there were too few improper votes to change the outcome.
With the public increasingly concerned about election integrity, it’s shocking that lawmakers would consider obscuring data essential to checking the veracity of elections.
This is sensitive territory. People worry about identity theft.
Rather than stoking fears based on misleading information, the Legislature should be improving public understanding of what’s risky to share and what’s not. That would help people protect themselves and not live in constant fear of shadowy thieves.
If banks actually let someone open a false account using just a name and birthday, lawmakers should crack down on financial institutions with weak security and find better ways to hold them liable.
“It’s certainly the case that birthday and name alone are unlikely by themselves to lead to identity theft, or they shouldn’t,” said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor specializing in digital issues.
Calo said government has legitimate concerns about releasing records that could cause problems, such as information about children. Privacy is important and deserves protection, he said.
This gets harder in the digital age, when so much is shared and widely available.
What’s needed is knowledge. The public and lawmakers need to be informed about what’s a real threat and what’s not.
Knowledge helps protect them not only from identity thieves but also from those who weaponize privacy fears. This is done to con consumers into overspending on security software and protection services.
These fears are also being weaponized in Olympia to advance a political agenda at odds with the public’s best interest.
Lawmakers are right to be concerned about the safety of their constituents.
So they should reject fearmongering attempts to conceal public records that help, rather than hurt, the people they represent.