Posting government data

We live in a time when the personal is no longer private, and that doesn’t just apply to Facebook and Twitter feeds. Government databases that journalists use in their stories include a ton of personal information, too. But just because you can get your hands on it doesn’t mean you should post it online, says David Cullier, chairman of SPJ’s national FOI committee.

Writing in the May issue of Quill, Cullier says most people consider their date of birth, home address and home phone number to be private information. No matter what the law says, publishing that information can be perceived as an invasion of privacy. So Cullier advises asking three key questions before deciding whether to post, publish or broadcast government data:

1. Is it personal? What information is included about individuals that might be considered personal?

2. Is it necessary? Does the information convey something essential or is it needed to avoid confusing two people with the same name?

3. Is it a public benefit? Is there a clear journalistic reason for using the information?

If there’s no good reason for including the information, Cullier suggests leaving it out. But why bother doing that if the information is already publicly available? Because, Cullier says, when journalists post what most people consider to be personal information it’s disseminated much more widely, and that can lead to a backlash.

He points to a case in 2005 when an Orlando TV station posted on its Web site the names of people holding concealed gun permits. It was public data then, but it’s not any more. Under pressure from the NRA, the Florida legislature closed the records in 2006.

“More than ever, we need to think carefully about what we post online, even when the information is legally public,” Cullier says. “The alternative is losing access altogether.”

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