Dear Gov. Parson:
Granted I am not a Missouri resident, but you have still shamed me. As Republicans, we are supposed to take responsibility for our failings. Yet, you have seemed to blame others for a situation that, if not created, has continued under your leadership and governance. In doing so, you have seemingly denigrated and attempted to dismiss one of our core principles and the reason behind it – the First Amendment providing for a free press and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances without the fear of prosecution or persecution.
It has been widely reported that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch conducted an investigation into vulnerabilities on the DESE website. In doing so, they apparently found one that exposed the Social Security Numbers of Missouri educators.
The “damage” of this investigation was limited as the Post-Dispatch reports that they only obtained sensitive information on three persons. Further, they notified DESE as soon as reasonably possible, seemingly maintained the information obtained to assist with any investigation by DESE, and withheld their findings from the public until DESE had an opportunity to correct the matter.
Based on their actions, there was no nefarious intent on their part, merely an intention to investigate how securely the state holds information on its educators.
The “of the press” portion of the First Amendment was created for this specific intent – to hold Government accountable to the People and to allow for investigations and oversight of Government by the press. Without such accountability, Government would be able to run amuck and disregard its citizenry and constituents, as well as its employees.
Journalists do have a responsibility to investigate Government ethically. They should not violate Law in order to check up on Government, and should gather any and all information morally and legally.
Based on the news reports of the incident, not just from the Post-Dispatch but from others, as well, the staff at the Post-Dispatch did just that. They visited a public website, used a publicly accessible search engine, and received information that is publicly available. They used tools that are available to everyone using an internet browser, i.e., something available on each and every computer in use, in that they were able to right-click on the page displaying the search result and view the source code for the page. This is where the information was found.
By stating that the staff members who accessed this information “decoded the HTML source,” converted and took the information, you have expressed either your lack of fundamental understanding about the internet and website coding or an effort to deflect from your responsibility. According to numerous sources, there was no sophisticated decoding required as you implied during your press conference announcing the response to the situation.
In that response, you cited Missouri Revised Statute 569.095, “Tampering with computer data.” You laid out that the staff at the Post-Dispatch had violated this law as they had “gain(ed) unauthorized access to information or content” when this is not at all what the law states. Together, let’s review the Law and how the actions by the staff members of the Post-Dispatch would have this applied:
1. A person commits the offense of tampering with computer data if he or she knowingly and without authorization or without reasonable grounds to believe that he has such authorization:
Even though, as comments below will exhibit, no “authorization” was needed since the actions did not violate any parts of the Statute below, the authorization, if it had been necessary, would have been the First Amendment right to Free Press and the investigation of Government for possible petition of redress of grievance.
(1) Modifies or destroys data or programs residing or existing internal to a computer, computer system, or computer network; or
At no point was any data or program modified or destroyed, whether residing on a computer, computer system, or computer network.
(2) Modifies or destroys data or programs, or supporting documentation residing or existing external to a computer, computer system, or computer network; or
At no point was any data, program, or supporting documentation modified or destroyed residing or existing external to a computer, computer system, or computer network.
(3) Discloses or takes data, programs, supporting documentation, residing or exiting internal or external to a computer, computer system, or computer network; or
Any information “taken” was made publicly accessible by DESE and was not surreptitiously taken. To charge the Post-Dispatch staff under this provision would require also charging anyone else who had conducted a search via DESE and received results.
(4) Discloses or takes a password, identifying code, personal identification number, or other confidential information about a computer system or network that is intended to does control access to the computer system or network;
According to multiple reports, the only disclosure of the information obtained was to DESE in an effort to provide the opportunity to correct the situation. To apply a charge of a violation of this provision to this situation would equate to charging someone who finds illicit drugs on the street and attempts to turn them in to the police with possession of the drugs.
(5) Accesses a computer, a computer system, or a computer network, and intentionally examines information for another person;
The purpose of the search engine on the DESE website is to locate information on Missouri educators, with the searches performed by others. To apply this provision would require that each person who has performed a search through the DESE website be charged.
(6) Receives, retains, uses, or discloses any data he knows or believes was obtained in violation of this subsection.
(1) No information obtained was done so in contradiction with this subsection; (2) retention of any information was only done so to provide with the appropriate authorities (DESE) so that the root cause and underlying issue could be identified and resolved.
2. The offense of tampering with computer data is a class A misdemeanor, unless the offense is committed for the purpose of devising or executing any scheme or artifice to defraud or to obtain any property, the value of which is seven hundred fifty dollars or more, in which case it is a class E felony.
As exhibited above, no offense of “tampering with computer data” was committed. Even if it is found that such an offense was committed, the purpose behind it was to provide for Government accountability, and not to “defraud or to obtain any property,” much less any of a value of $750 or more.
It seems that the state of Missouri, under your leadership and governance, is guilty instead of making the personal, sensitive, and likely confidential information of Missouri’s educators available to the public. Instead of addressing this issue, though, you have chosen to investigate and attempt to prosecute those responsible for finding this fact and alerting your administration to it.
Your reaction to this situation is despicable and contrary to the ideals and principles of your party. It exhibits a deep misunderstanding of modern activities and, in this layperson’s opinion, of the application of Law in such a situation. By stating “They had no authorization to convert or decode. So, this was clearly a hack,” you deny your own government’s mishandling of private information when it was made public, and any understanding of the word “authorized” as you stated that the access, which had been made public, was “unauthorized access to information or content.”
Your attempt to prosecute is tantamount to dropping a supposedly-confidential file on your way between the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, then prosecuting anyone who sees the documents for obtaining confidential information.
You have degraded one of the founding principles of this nation in declaring that seemingly investigations by the press into governmental information is a criminal offense. You have failed to accept responsibility on behalf of the state for the fact that such information was readily available to anyone who visits the DESE website and performs a search.
To use the threats of prosecution and to further that with the threat of civil penalties upwards of or exceeding $50 million, it seems that you wish to dissuade the press from their duties of keeping Government accountable. You have threatened lives, liberty, and personal belongings and earnings through your statements.
Although I do not reside in Missouri, you have shamed me as a person who normally agrees with your party, but more importantly as an American.
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