My colleague Bryan Dean has been following the fallout of a reorganization of Oklahoma City departments, which has apparently unearthed some questions about a federal grant program.
The city recently moved its Weed and Seed Program, a federally funded urban crime and quality of life initiative, from the now defunct neighborhood services department to the police department. (Read Bryan’s stories here and here.)
The City of Oklahoma City has put two employees on leave after an investigation into Weed and Seed grant funds. Officials claim they accidentally gave the newspaper the name of the first employee, and they’re refusing to give the name of the second employee disciplined.
Meantime, the city also refused to release the date of birth of the first employee, Ed Martin. The newspaper is seeking his date of birth so it can find out more about Martin’s background. But with nothing more than a name, verifying public records we already have makes it virtually impossible to find out which of the seven Ed Martins in Oklahoma City is a city employee.
In a rather bizarre twist of logic, the city attorney said releasing Martin’s date of birth would be an invasion of privacy because it’s listed on his drivers’ license.
Before we go any further, let me ask you the last time you were asked to show your drivers license to a stranger? I do it an average of 3 or 4 times a week at a variety of retail establishments. I hardly consider my date of birth to be super-secret, private information.
Legally, city attorneys do have a point with certain drivers license information being closed to the public. But as Oklahoma State University journalism associate professor Joey Senat points out, that federal law governs the state Department of Public Safety, which issues drivers licenses. It does not govern the disclosure of city personnel actions:
The federal statute doesn’t explicitly list date of birth among the personal information on a driver’s license that should not be disclosed.
‘Personal information’ means information that identifies an individual, including an individual’s photograph, social security number, driver identification number, name, address (but not the 5-digit zip code), telephone number, and medical or disability information.
The fight over public employee records and dates of birth also has been brewing in Texas, where the Legislature has been trying to close access. My friend and former coworker, Ryan McNeill, has more at the Dallas Morning News Investigates blog.
Further afield in Washington state, former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels asked that state’s attorney general to make a ruling on closing access to city employee records and dates of birth. After researching the issue, Attorney General Rob McKenna said there was no basis for such a decision:
I have looked carefully into this matter and have concluded that public employees’ dates of birth should not be statutorily or categorically exempt from disclosure, for three main reasons. First, dates of birth are already widely available on the Internet and elsewhere, including state voter registration records that are publicly available. Thus, for practical purposes, there is simply no privacy interest left to protect. Second, dates of birth are an important tool to help keep government accountable. Finally, a more targeted and effective way to fight identity theft would be to allow consumers to freeze access to their credit histories to prevent identity thieves from opening credit accounts in their names.
One of the most cited reason for closing public records, identity theft, is largely a red herring. When asked, our local police couldn’t name an instance of identity theft from public records. Most identity theft comes from old-fashioned thefts, lost wallets or a wayward relative with easy access to credit cards or mail, according to the latest research report by Javelin:
Despite the hefty blame – largely perpetuated by the media – placed on the Internet and cyber-crime, online identity theft methods (phishing, hacking and malware) only accounted for 11% of fraud cases in 2008. The truth is, most known cases of fraud occur through traditional methods, when a criminal has direct, physical access to the victim’s information. These instances include stolen and lost wallets, checkbooks, or credit cards, or even through the simple act of a criminal surreptitiously eavesdropping into your conversation as you make a purchase.
Written by Paul Monies