Montgomery Situation Highlights Tension Between Transparency & Privacy

A Washington Post article (2017-03-26) highlighted the challenges counties and all levels of government face when deciding how to balance the mutually exclusive but worthwhile goals of transparency and privacy. The article focused on the decision of the Montgomery County Council to request  that more than 200,000 email addresses of people receiving County newsletters be removed from the County’s open government portal, DataMontgomery. The Council adopted legislation in 2012 that created the portal and requires a large amount of county data to be made available online. From the article:

A five-member majority of council members — [Hans Reimer (D-At Large)], Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Sidney Katz (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) — ordered their attorney to pull back from public view more than 90,000 of the email addresses published on DataMontgomery , the portal created under Riemer’s [2012 open government] bill. The bill required publication on the portal of any information released through a Maryland Public Information Act request. …

“This is like a treasure trove for marketers,” agreed Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who was not one of the five. Publication of the addresses, he said, could have created a “chilling effect” that would prevent many of the county’s 1 million residents from interacting with local government.

Pulling the email addresses violated the 2012 law, which is similar to new open-government statutes in other states and localities. Riemer said the decision was forced by “exigent circumstances” and argued that the public interest served by mass distribution of the addresses was outweighed by privacy concerns.

The article noted that Reimer was preparing an amendment to the 2012 open government law that would exclude email disclosures. The article contained the opinion of Future of Privacy Forum Vice President for Policy John Verdi, who stated that balancing transparency and privacy was an increasingly common challenge for governments.

“Everybody agrees that transparent government is a good thing,” said Verdi, a former Obama administration official who worked on privacy issues. “You have data that is purely government data, and data appropriately excluded by public information laws. Then you get the gray area in the middle, where an increasingly important question being asked is about the right balance between openness and privacy.”

Verdi said Montgomery’s experience “highlights government’s responsibility to provide notice to folks that information they submit might be made public.”

The article also provided further background on the Public Information Act request that led to the disclosure of the email addresses. The initial request was made by MocoVoters, a grass-roots group focused on voter turnout and development issues. Since receiving the email addresses, MoCoVoters has decided not to use them but instead build its membership through social media.

Useful Links

DataMontgomery Website

Future of Privacy Forum Website