State Senate unanimously exempts public employee birth dates with no debate; Privacy expert to speak about issue at Sunshine Week conference

At the urging of the state employees association, the Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would exempt public employees' birth dates from the Open Records Act.

The 44-0 vote came after no debate or questions.

But such an important issue deserves plenty of debate and questions as this legislation goes to the House for consideration.

Prior to the Senate vote, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association encouraged its members to ask their senators to vote for SB 1753. In an e-mail, the OPEA said:

State employees’ duties often bring them in contact with the public in safety, protection of the most vulnerable and regulatory functions. Child welfare workers, corrections and probation officers, or benefit workers can be stalked by criminals or disgruntled members of the public with whom they have come in contact through the performance of their job duties. Employees’ birthdates can also be used by identity thieves to access bank accounts and credit of public workers.

The OPEA touts the Senate vote as one of its "first wins of the legislative session."

“In this day of identity theft and fraud, we need to make sure these private records are kept confidential," said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley.
"We now look forward to working with the House of Representatives to secure passage of this very important piece of legislation.”

But an internationally recognized expert on data privacy disagrees with Zearley.

Richard J. H. Varn says identity theft is a real problem but public records aren't the source of that problem.
Exempting the information, however, does create a privacy problem.

When public identifiers are not made public, it is nearly impossible to distinguish one person from another. It leads to more false positives and false negatives, Varn told the National Freedom of Information Coalition conference this past summer.

For example, when The Oklahoman compared January’s state payroll data to the state sex offender registry, the newspaper found 778 state employees who share first and last names with registered sex offenders.

"Without dates of birth, which are included in the sex offender registry, it is impossible to determine whether these workers may be sex offenders," the newspaper noted.

State law already exempts public employees' Social Security numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers. SB 1753 would make it virtually impossible to determine if those employees have committed crimes, evaded paying taxes, filed for bankruptcy or made political contributions.

Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee told
The Oklahoman he has some reservation about the bill even though he voted for it.

"Further discussion is necessary before a bill like that would become law,” the Oklahoma City Republican said.

That discussion should include experts such as Varn who can educate legislators on the realities of identity crimes.

As keynote speaker for the March 13 FOI conference in Oklahoma City, the former Iowa legislator will explain how improved identity management technology and practices, along with public education on self-protection measures, would be more effective defenses against identity theft.

Varn is the chief information officer for the city of San Antonio and director of The Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access. He was the first Iowa legislator to install and use a computer in the legislative chambers. He later created and served as director of that state's first Information Technology Department. Varn, who also has a law degree, is an internationally recognized expert and leader in information technology, privacy, identity security, public policy, and digital government.

Just the sort of person our legislators should speak with before turning SB 1753 into law.

For more discussion and information on the bill and related issues:

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.