In a great victory for government transparency and accountability, the Washington State Supreme Court last week blocked efforts to create a gaping loophole in the state Public Records Act.
At issue was whether the public should be allowed to know the dates of birth of public employees.
That’s important because birth dates are required to identify individual employees, such as the sex offenders secretly working as school coaches that this newspaper could only identify using birth dates in its “Coaches who prey” series.
The ruling, penned by Justice Debra Stephens, said “birth dates are often important in matters of public concern.” It noted the coaches series and another Times project, using birth dates to expose “double dipping” government employees drawing pension and employment income simultaneously.
“These examples underscore that disclosure of birth dates often serves the public interest in transparency and oversight,” the ruling said.
Washington’s Legislature should accept this conclusion and resist any further pressure to obscure the identity of public employees. The Public Records Act is held dear by citizens across the state. They don’t want representatives to make their government less transparent and accountable.
The ruling stems from a feud between public-employee unions and a conservative organization, which was trying to contact workers to inform them of their options. Unfortunately that politicized what should be a nonpartisan issue. It also led to fearmongering, with unions exploiting fear of identity theft and misunderstandings about the risks, to justify government secrecy.
Protecting people from identity theft is important. But that’s not accomplished by obscuring birth dates on public records.
In 2017, Washington state saw 7,360 reports of identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That’s 0.1% of the population. More people are victims of fraud, mostly by scam phone calls.
If it took only birth dates to steal identity and credit, theft rates would be far higher, since birth dates are widely available. Voter birthdays in Washington are public records, for instance. This minimal information sharing is an innocuous trade-off made to have accountable self governance.
Public employees also relinquish some privacy. The public — their employer — must know who they are, their age and salary. That comes with the territory and the benefits of public service and receiving public dollars.
Yet four Supreme Court justices still think birth dates — which are routinely disclosed by state agencies, including courts — are secrets akin to bank accounts or medical records and dissented from last week’s ruling.
They didn’t cite a single case of birth dates alone being used to perpetrate fraud or identity theft. Instead, the dissent invoked data breaches and shadowy thieves — “Whether by buying or hacking, cybercriminals can access our personal information to wreak havoc” — but those are very different threats. It establishes only that Washington’s longstanding practice of disclosing birthdays is the least of our security concerns.
Yes, birthdays are among facts listed on bank forms. But it takes additional, more sensitive material to steal identity or credit — material exempt from public disclosure, under the Records Act. If underworld McGyvers could use the circa 1972 act to obtain birthdays and steal, the justices would have many examples to cite by now.
Even more troubling is dissenters’ belief that confirming public employees’ identity “is not of legitimate concern.” Astoundingly, Justices Charles Wiggins, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Susan Owens and Steven Gonzalez agreed that “ensuring state workers are ‘who they say they are’ … hardly touches on open government and says nothing about the function of state government.”
But the majority cited more persuasive, and reasonable, legal standards.
“Disclosure of birth date information is not ‘highly offensive’ under our precedent, and it serves legitimate public interests, furthering the policy of the PRA to promote transparency and public oversight,” the ruling stated.
Washington needs such thoughtful, nuanced law and policy. That ensures core values — including transparency and accountability — transcend technological change, and overcome the challenges and fears it will always present.