Sunday, May 04, 2008

Privacy; Not So Much

I quote here from the Standard-Times Privacy agreement offered to all posters on the gosanangelo online site, "III. We do not share personal information with any third party without your permission".

There is much more than that, but the rest is legalese ruffles and flourish, that sentence captures the promise the newspaper made to posters. That promise has been broken and the newspaper's reaction to the situation has been late and negligent at best. The print edition article in Sunday, May 4 edition is the first print acknowledgement the problem existed, and it was not only inadequate, it served to compound the error.

For those who do not follow the online version, a little background. The online edition has a feature that allows posters to register under a screen name and comment on articles or editorials in an ongoing forum. It has been a lively, close-to-real-time open comments back and forth, for the most part lightly moderated. Comments are subject to being removed for libel, obcenity, cuss words and such, many such comments have been pulled. A few posters have been outright banned for repetitive violations. In my case, the anonymity was never an item, I self-identified during the Charter Amendments debates as "barkeep". I posted often and enjoyed the free exchange beyond what deadlines and ink-on-dead-trees could possibly provide.

On April 25, I was told that lists of posters' real names were being bandied about in the Police Dept. and that officers who had posted for or against certain candidates were in fear of reprisal. Frankly, I knew that several officers from various candidates' camps had been posting under screen names, but I simply did not credit that the Standard-Times would give out a list, I blew it off as overly paranoid. That weekend, I heard from several sources the same story. Depending on which candidate a source supported, these people had varying ideas as to who had engineered this opening of user profiles, but the basic facts were congruent and stand without resort to conspiracy theories.

A change was made to the content management system that allowed, for about a day, any viewer, from any internet connected screen, to click on a screen name and get the registering user profile (real name, for those who didn't bother to lie when they registered) and complete posting history for that user. While my informants were concerned with Police Department posters, it worked for any poster, any topic, full history. One person expressed concern for teachers' privacy over a performance review topic that had been hot a few months ago. I wondered aloud had anyone bothered to check on true names of some of the FLDS posters. To be sure, blame notwithstanding, this leak was common knowledge by 4/24 PM. Personal note: by the time I heard of this, the barn door had been closed, I do not have the list so many people obviously do have.

Seeing nothing in the paper, I forwarded a heads up to Ty Meighan, along with some speculation, labelled as such, on Monday, 4/28, later acknowledged by e-mail. Late Wednesday, one WhiteHorseman "outed" 9 screen names, obviously taken from this leak. 1:15 AM 4/30, I posted as barkeep and made explicit for those who had not yet heard that which I outlined in the preceeding paragraph. This set off a flurry of "I know who you are; nyah, nyah, no you don't I lied" yadayada that continues to this day.

Finally, today, Sunday May 4, the Standard-Times publishes a story letting the rest of the world know that the privacy promised to posters had been breached 10 days before. As if the delay were not bad enough, the story in which this revelation is finally stated compounds the original breach. During that interim, nearly every correspondent to the online version has become aware the loss of privacy occured, but as in my case, not all of them had access to the full list. Readers of the ink-on-dead-trees paper were likely unaware this leak happened.

In the same edition where the Standard-Times endorses Tim Vasquez for re-election, the article announcing this violation of their privacy agreement leads off by blowing the apparent screen name of Vasquez' widely accepted as nearest contender, Jeff Davis. While not specifically naming them, the article goes on to say "At least four members of the officers' meet-and-confer team also have names attatched to comments...The city and its attorneys aren't likely to forget that when negotiations resume in the fall, and the ramifications go beyond that-the City Council could decide not to negotiate." Leave aside whether this effectively outs the meet-and-confer team, on what basis does the S-T allege the Council even can, let alone is likely to, refuse to negotiate? What part of meet and confer statute allows the city to unilaterally refuse to talk to the officers' duly elected representatives on the grounds of "we don't like what you said last spring"?

It appears Davis did handle this poorly, but, so long as The Standard-Times is "outing" posters, why not supporters of other candidates? I am unaware of any screen name directly tied to any other candidate specifically, but I have been keeping up with this race, and have probably read most of them. I can tell you this; advocates for, if not the actual candidates have played the "I know who you are" game and some made comments rude enough to rate removal. While I do not endorse, just to be honest, in the heat of this I had a first-time removal; after a poster wished I had been aborted, I responded with someting rude enough to get (justifiably) removed.

Critical to understanding this issue, for those not using the online forum, is the meaning of "user profile" the actual information revealed. When a poster registers, the one verifiable field is the e-mail address. Should one care to, one can fill in name as Mickey Mouse, address Disneyworld. At least one poster was revealed to be using three screen names, different e-mail links for each. The information that was revealed consisted of these self-proclaimed user profiles. Some people gave aliases there as a second layer of identity protection, in retrospect, not unreasonably. Those immediately revealed were those who were most trusting in the privacy agreement and didn't bother to lie, or the few, such as myself, who didn't care. I went with "barkeep" because I have used it for many years on many other forums, not for concealment.

I have sworn to protect confidential statements, not necessarily to believe everything I am told, but if I tell someone I will not say where this came from, I won't. People from different camps talk to me, and I stress here, candidate advocates, no candidate personally does. I have not and will not endorse a candidate, and I try to weigh the bias of sources who talk to me. That clear, there is a huge misunderstanding about this breach of the privacy agreement. I hear from different sides "so&so outed me, everybody knows so&so is a mouthpiece for Candidate X".

Please people, the party responsible for revealing user profiles, to the extent they are true names, that party is the Standard-Times. This person or that may have taken advantage of that information in ways I would find ethically questionable, but they could never have done so had the Standard-Times not made the information available in contravention of an explicitly stated privacy agreement.

That said we move to the handling of this breach by the Standard-Times. I think in legalistic terms, my Blog partner Mr. Turner thinks in computer geek terms, I came up with "negligent", he prefers "incompetence". I only diferrentiate because negligent has legal implications in tort law that incompetent doesn't necessarily encompass.

The explanation offered in today's Standard-Times article states this was, "not a hack into the Standard-Times' site by supporters of a certain candidate, as conspiracy-minded commenters have suggested". I may have missed a comment here or there, but no one I've talked to thought this was an outside hack. By accident or no, there are people who find it remarkably coincidental that this "open door" was coincidentally tripped over by people willing to take advantage of it. I won't say that didn't happen, but I'm a fairly successful gambler and I didn't get there drawing to inside straights.

The genesis of this information leak had to be in-house, and today's article says as much. To be perfectly clear, I do not mean, necessarily, in house as to the confines of the Standard-Times Harris St. building, but corporate in-house. After that, the explanation gets thin real quick. The mistake is attributed to "new employees in Knoxville" who were in a weekly process which "reset privacy controls for newspapers across the chain, not realizing the Standard-Times wanted to keep profile data away from the public". Excuse me, but which Scripps Howard newspapers DO intend to make user profile information public? Last time I looked in on the Abilene Reporter News, they didn't. Did they last Thursday? Scripps Howard has, I believe, 19 newspapers, not all have online comments, but those which do, have identical privacy agreements.

Why did the Standard-Times wait 10 days after they say their people were advised of this breach to make a public statement alerting users it had happened? If the reader is unfamiliar with the online edition and the comments section, it has been an open free-for-all with commenters from every side calling out their opposition advocates since WhiteHorseman ID'd 9 posters April 29th. Don't bother to look for WhiteHorseman's original posts that evening, they have vanished. In fine point of fact, their reporter inquired of me had I happened to print out those comments, he could not access them. As it happens, I had, I may have the only existing copy of those comments as they originally appeared. Don't even ask which rock that is buried under.

The article states that their online director Betty Brackin "is working individually with those wishing to reclaim their anonymity". Maybe so, but even that help is limited to those posters who are already aware they were outed and ask for help. For all anyone knows, posters on say the teacher evaluation subject may not have checked in lately, may have been utterly unaware that their personal information and comment history is open to any inquiring mind who knew about this "window of opportunity". This should have been as public as an automobile safety recall. In truth, I have been too patient. The Standard-Times article Sunday says they were aware of this Friday, April 25. Give some allowance for getting the full story, the Standard-Times should have had an alert in print sometime that weekend, before I sent them my heads-up letter.

That aside, how well has their remedy worked? One case I have tripped over, a poster did ask Ms. Brackin for help. Sho' nuff, poster X was given a new screen name, and the old posts were removed. Unfortunately, when I went back to posts put up a week before the leak, I see this: The post by X in support of candidate Y was removed; two responses to that post are still there, only now they read "response to (new screen name X)" then in the body of the text response, the old screen name is used. In short, this poster has been retroactively "outed" a second time, backdated to a week before the original leak happened!

Make no mistake; I appreciate the Standard-Times, in this case I have often complimented the reporter who wrote the story I have objections to. I enjoy the online trading of opinion. In this case, the story, the revelation of identity, the remedy for it and the explanation of it has been poorly done. It cannot escape attention that in the same edition where the paper's endorsement of incumbent Chief Vasquez includes this: "the incident eventually led to a Texas Ranger investigation after Vasquez disclosed to the Standard-Times that the woman was an informant for SAPD Sgt. Jeff Davis. Revealing such information is a felony...", the Standard-Times compounds its own violation of confidentiality by disclosing the identity of Vasquez' most threatening opponent to print edition readers who may have been completely unaware of this tempest. I have my own copy of the "AP Stylebook" 2007 edition and its guidelines to confidential sources. If ya'll need one Hastings has them in stock. I gave you the Palmer file for free, this you can buy.


  1. Jim, you and I agree on the issues about 99% of the time – this case being no different. It would appear the SAST would go to any lengths to see Vasquez re-elected – including assassinating and throwing Davis under the bus.

    I am an avid Cunningham supporter, but I am appalled to see what happened to Davis at the hands of the ST and the fact the ST can hide behind some cock-and-bull story about a glitch in Knoxville, TN to cover their dastardly deed. All of the events leading up the endorsement of Vasquez and simultaneously launching a well-placed torpedo into the side of the Davis ship on the same day is far too coincidental for my tastes.

    The ST is myopic to the point of being blind regarding their endorsement of Vasquez and the long-range effects on the SAPD if Vasquez is re-elected. Lying, perjury, and corruption are all now acceptable behavior at a law enforcement agency that was once known for unyielding and impeccable ethical standards just a few years ago. I still believe in the individual, self-imposed standards each officer has, but it only takes a very small minority to cast the entire SAPD into doubt – starting with Chief Vasquez.

  2. Anon, I agree. The Chief is a Leadership position. Effective leadership in ethics, as in all areas, has to start with the example the leader sets.

    Jim Turner, the other Jim on the blog.

  3. A few comments, Jim, from the other side.

    First, there appears to be some misunderstanding among much of the local blogosphere about my column and how it relates to the Web site and editorial board. In two words: It doesn't.

    My column was just that -- an opinion piece, highlighting what I saw as a significant concern for voters in the police chief election. That it coincided with the S-T endorsement of Vasquez is a coincidence, and as I'm sure you know, whom the editorial board endorses has nothing to do with me or any other reporter.

    The lists given me -- including the one you graciously provided -- do indeed list several supporters and family members of different candidates, not just Jeff Davis. But if I wrote a column every time a candidate's supporter or even family member said something negative, all I'd do is write columns. The difference is that Davis was the only actual candidate listed; the possibility that it might be a family member was brought up by Davis himself. He opened that door.

    There are some statements running around, including one you made in this post, that alarm me. I never once promised any poster on our Web site anonymity. did, but I am not Any concerns about the Standard-Times or its Web site go above my pay grade, but my calling is to report news and information that may be of importance to our readers. If I myself do not agree to a request for confidentiality, then I feel no obligation to keep information I receive a secret if I believe the readers need to know it.

    Suffice it to say I have never reneged on a promise of confidentiality to my sources. Never have, never will. Davis never asked me for confidentiality, and frankly, in this case, I wouldn't have given such a promise. Like you, I speak to a number of supporters of a number of different candidates off the record. I would be out of a job quickly if I violated promises I make in these situations, and I'm not comfortable with some of the below-the-surface allegations that I somehow violated that kind of agreement with a source. I did not.

    Frankly, a lot of this conspiracy theorizing that I see online -- mostly in our comments section -- is ridiculously silly. I don't deny that appearances could allow someone to make a case that I'm somehow in cahoots with the editorial board to throw the election to Vasquez. But that construct falls apart with the slightest scrutiny. How many people would know about the Texas Ranger investigation without the four Sunday and Monday articles I wrote about it? For that matter, there wouldn't have even been a Ranger investigation without the story I wrote about the assault allegations against Vasquez.

    The funny thing is that all the people criticizing the Standard-Times for endorsing Vasquez cite information they've learned in my stories -- then they turn around and accuse me of trying to get Vasquez elected. If anything, this shows that the Standard-Times has printed both "positive" and "negative" stories (I'm of the opinion that news is simply news and is received positively or negatively by the reader or viewer) about the police chief. That means I've been fair, and in the end, that's the only thing I can try to be.

  4. Paul,

    First, your story was listed under the "News" section of the web site instead of being where it should have been, under the "Opinion" banner.

    Second in you article you said something very interesting which opens this door about your journalist ethics. Here is the quote directly from the article you wrote.

    "The city and its attorneys aren't likely to forget that when negotiations resume in the fall, and the ramifications go beyond that - the City Council could decide not to negotiate with the San Angelo Coalition of Police, period."

    When you have such a significant quote it deserves some kind of context and maybe who the quote was from or at least something that would help validate the correctness of that quote. I suspect the quote was from Chief Vasquez or someone from his camp. He never has liked CLEAT doing the negotiation for San Angelo cops since he belongs to the rival group TMPA.

    Third, and last thing. You are employed by the Standard Times and as such you are bound by your corporations commitments to its customers when it comes to confidentiality just as the Standard Times/Scripts should be bound by your commitments of confidentiality to your sources.
    Hopefully you will do a better job of fairness when you write your next story.

    Yours truely,

  5. GmaB,

    I spoke to city attorneys who said the City Council has the discretion to revoke its decision to negotiate in meet-and-confer if it feels the process is no longer beneficial to the city and choose to bring the PD back into civil service. I don't know if the council feels this way, but it's a possibility -- one the meet-and-confer officers and negotiators should have been cognizant of.

    Your suspicions about where that information came from are incorrect. It came straight from the City Attorney's Office. I would not put information about what the council may or may not be legally able to do without consulting that office.

    As for fairness, I gave Mr. Davis the opportunity to respond to the evidence I presented, and I printed his responses verbatim. He was the only police chief candidate whose name was registered as a commenter. You can choose whether to believe him or not. I cannot be any fairer than that. Ignoring the implications of what "freedom76" was doing if he was indeed a candidate for chief would have been an abdication of my responsibility to provide the voters the information they needed to make an informed decision on Saturday -- as much an abdication as failing to report any of the numerous criminal allegations filed against the incumbent chief would have been.

  6. Paul, I was up late last night, long shift today but your comment deserves a response and I want to clarify some items which have been misunderstood.

    Though I didn't mention your name the "reporter" was obvious. I also put in complimentary language, and that was not "cover". Lest anyone think otherwise, I regard Paul Anthony as one of the best reporters currently on staff. At various times on various subjects, I have in discussion with Paul, gone "off record" or "background" in order to give him context I thought he needed for a story. How he considered such was entirely up to him but let me state for the record: Paul Anthony has never betrayed a trust I put in him, or to my knowledge, that of anyone else.

    We may differ on this column, but truly, that responsibility resides with the Standard-Times. The newspaper, not Paul individually promised not to share identifying information, and that promise had self-evidently been breached. I re-read my article, I believe I attributed blame for this to the S-T and/or Scripps Howard, rather than to the reporter.

    Paul, your weekly column is in an indistinct category. You obviously have more latitude than would be granted a "straight" news story, but it is not labelled as "opinion", in fact it shows up by clicking "local" under News category.

    I don't think I implied that you had any part of the editorial board endorsement, I know full well you don't. Still, the content of a given day's edition is taken by most readers as a unit.

    I know there is internal separation from editorial board, online content dept. and reporters such as yourself. Had you had access to everything the online people know, you would not have had to ask for the vanished "WhiteHorseman" posts that kicked over this anthill from me.

    One further clarification, that which I was fortunate to be able to provide you was not so much a "list" as a number of posts I happened to have printed out before they vanished. WhiteHorseman did list 9 poster IDs. In the sense that some people took advantage of this open door and discovered any profile they were interested in, I did not hear of this until the door had been closed.

    This is a tricky bit of ethics. I absolutely support your contention you did not betray any confidence you personally promised. On the other hand posters, Davis among them had an explicit promise of privacy from the Standard-Times. Definitely above your pay grade and apart from your job, which IMO you do very well. I contend someone there in more of a "gatekeeper" position should have honored the privacy agreement and spiked the Davis portion of your column.

    No fault to you for running down a hot story, that's your job. Let me ask this as a hypothetical: Had Davis had the wit to make no statement, answered no questions, AND cited the privacy agreement between the S-T and online posters, would you have gone with the story? Ok, we know he didn't, and that opened the door, as the lawyers say.

    My sincere apologies if any reader takes from my article that Paul Anthony is in any way less than honorable. My intention was to take the newspaper to task, not a good reporter. I reiterate, I have trusted this man with confidential information several times, I will have no problem doing so in the future, and would so advise anyone who asks my opinion.

  7. Paul,

    Interesting response. It would appear the folks that post on ST site should have realized they were risking a lot if the newspaper outs them in violation of its own privacy agreement. This is a very sad day for the profession of journalist. But in this case the reporter still gets to write a story about news created by the reporters own newspaper's incompetence.

    Your response is a bit callus toward the posters that were outed. You said, "I don't know if the council feels this way, but it's a possibility -- one the meet-and-confer officers and negotiators should have been cognizant of." You sound as if you are blaming the posters because they were foolish enough to trust your employer to abide by its own confidentiality agreement it made to all who signed on to ST's web site. As a poster you had to agree with the ST before your paper would let you on the site.

    It not that you did the story, instead it was the tone of your story. You came across as though you were happy the posters got outed and the damage was done. I personally don't believe that about you, having met you on more than one occasion. Your appear genuine about writing good solid stories but your paper put you in a rough spot by the placement and timing of this particular story.

    Whether you like it or not, fair or unfair, the majority perception is you bear a large part of the blame in this. Hopefully your newspaper will figure out how to put the tooth paste back in the tube but I don't hold out much hope for the victims in this and there will be victims. Vasquez and company are making their lists and with the help given them unintentionally by your paper, now have a way to do harm to certain police officers and their families.

    Sad, very very sad.

  8. Paul,

    Why did the Standard Times remove the posts from you that I put on their site under the article "Web remarks point to candidate."

    What gives with that?

    Hopefully you can answer.

  9. Anthony claimed that Web site group permissions to view all profile information of all registered users was done across all 19 sites at Scripps. After reviewing the mechanism of the software they use called Django, I am pretty much thinking that is bunk. According to where the documentation lies for the Scripps web sites, it appears that permissions configuration is conducted on a site-by-site basis, on the template level. To make the error inadvertent, the mistake would most likely have been made at the template level on an individual site, not across all sites as Anthony reported. And what changes to the template did they make when the error occurred? The templates look the same as 8 weeks ago.

    And that begs the question: was the 'error' done on purpose?

  10. Furthermore, the so-called 'error' 'across all 19 web sites' in the scripps network coincided with a story about Davis making those comments, and an endorsement of Vasquez. I have heard from the Davis camp that officers outted by the scripps error have already been approached by supervisors...

  11. First, I have no axe to grind with Paul. He has a boss or two that clearly indicated their preference for Sr, Vasquez and it was either get on the bus or get off. Sad but true.

    I was one of the folks that was "outed" once and then "outed" again by the seemingly clueless Ms. Brackin. I never posted anything that was out of line but I do fear retribution from "Burn them to the ground".

    All I ask is that their be a clean and honest reporting of Sr. Tim's upcoming criminal charges. I do not expect to see that from Choo Choo Archuleta and company but hopefully we will get an honest rendering here.

    If the surnames were changed on this deal LULAC would be raising all sorts of cain about it.

    Nuff said.

  12. Anon 1:38 and the rest. We have been playing nice here but some are getting sloppy. Watch the name calling. This is a very emotional issue, and the anger is justified but we do have rules and are drifting to the edge. Keep posting but keep it focused on what's important.