Journalists, gun owners, and shooting the wrong privacy horse

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on December 30, 2012

From The News Desk

As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the face.”

Last week, following the Newtown massacre and the relentless media coverage it wrought, The Journal News, a Gannet newspaper covering New York State’s lower Hudson Valley, posted an interactive map displaying the addresses of all pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties. This was not the fruits of a massive paper-wide investigation. The Journal News secured the public record material through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Response came fast and furious. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions and took to the site’s comment threads. “I can't believe these a$$hats published this info,” wrote one. “This is the type of thing you do for sex offenders not law abiding gun owners,” wrote another. A third called it “the single most irresponsible and dangerous piece of ‘journalism’ I have ever seen. Criminals can now target a specific neighborhood, wait for pistol permit holders to leave for work and burglarize their homes looking for firearms.”

One “top commenter,” boasting the thread’s most popular comment (liked by 1,000+ readers), suggested revenge – “a map of the editorial staff and publishers of Gannett and Journal News with names and addresses of their families.” The following night, Christmas Eve, a Connecticut real estate agent obliged, posting online the addresses of Journal editorial staff along with photographs, biographic details, Facebook pages, Twitter account handles, phone numbers, and job descriptions.

This information blitz has done nothing to weaken Journal News editors’ resolve, however. In fact, the paper is doubling down. When gun permit information from nearby Putnam County becomes available, they promise to add those names and addresses to the map.

It’s curious that something as basic as your name, address, and inclusion on a map could engender such strong reactions. But you can sympathize with both sides of the debate. We live in an information-fueled world, yet personal information – when it’s yours, at least – remains a touchy subject. Even executives at Google, the biggest harvester of private information, are not beyond throwing a hissy fit when they lose control of theirs.

Once a CNET reporter, researching a story on privacy, decided to give herself 30 minutes to search for information on Google CEO Eric Schmidt then published the results: Schmidt lived with his wife in Atherton, California, was worth, at the time, about $1.5 billion, dumped about $140 million in Google shares that year, was an amateur pilot, and had been to the Burning Man festival. Google complained that publishing the information constituted a security threat. As punishment, Google announced it was blacklisting CNET for a year. (After the public drubbing it received for its pot-kettle-black hypocrisy, the company soon reversed course.)

Here is the deal, though. People can complain all they want about journalists publishing publicly available material. The fact is all this information exists. Much of who we are is a Google search away or stashed in databases scattered far and wide. A piece of you might be in the form of a HuffingtonPost comment or your email address appended to an online petition. Another could be a Facebook post, a Twitter 140-character blurb, a LinkedIn update, or a Flickr account. Maybe you neglected to anonymize your domain registration, or left an Amazon review under your real name. Did you announce on FourSquare that you just became the mayor of your local health club? It doesn’t take a well-trained sleuth to vacuum up all of these data crumbs to create an entire dossier on you.

At New York University I have graduate journalism students conduct an in-class research exercise to underscore the wealth of information that is available to an enterprising reporter. They have a half hour to pull up as much information as possible on a public figure. I usually assign Thomas F. Chapman, the former CEO of Equifax, the credit report company, because of a comment he once made. He was complaining about the government requiring credit companies like his to provide consumers one free report a year to check for inaccuracies and monitor for fraud. Chapman called the legislation “unconstitutional” while giving away reports was not “the American way.” Here’s a man whose company’s primary function is to amass and traffic in personal information, and he’s miffed a consumer has a right to see what’s in it without being charged?

I wondered what kind of information about him resided online. Lots, it turns out. My students learn all sorts of things about Mr. Chapman. His work history (including salary, bonuses, and stock transactions), the boards he serves on, home address, value of the property, blueprints, and much more. Since it’s not far from Equifax headquarters you could, if you wanted, plot the best route to work for him, or use Google Earth for a birds’ eye view of the land. Now plug your own name into Google, Zabasearch and any number of government-run databases like ACRIS and you’ll likely find more information about yourself than you feel comfortable sharing, too.

That’s because we often mistake security for obscurity. We hope if we keep a low enough profile, no one will notice. But our personal information has already been made public. It’s just that it’s inefficient to track down – until someone does it. Then he’s simply engaging in information arbitrage.

The only way to avoid this is to take proactive steps, like Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have. Google their names and you’ll encounter millions of entries each. But amid the dump of press clippings, corporate bios, conference appearances, and blog posts about them there’s very little about Page’s and Brin’s personal lives; it’s as if the pair had known all along that Google would change the way we acquire information, and carefully insulated their lives.

The rest of us are on our own, and, as Mike Tyson pointed out, we have no plan.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]