On the face of it, this is an incredibly stupid story1: a data journalist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Josh Renaud, discovered that a website run by the Missouri Department of Education was exposing the social security numbers of teachers in the source code of the site’s pages. The Post-Dispatch alerted the department, which fixed the bug, before publishing a story about the leaked data.
This was the exact right thing to do, both legally and ethically. By giving the government an opportunity to fix the problem, Renaud and the paper ensured no personal data was exposed to the general public. By publishing the story, the Post-Dispatch is doing its job and holding the government accountable.
It’s what happened next that makes the story so incredibly stupid. Missouri’s Republican Governor, Mike Parson, then held a press conference where he accused Renaud of “hacking” the state’s computer system and essentially blamed the entire problem on the Post-Dispatch’s reporting.
The most charitable view of the governor’s behavior is an overblown covering of one’s ass. It’s clear Parson has no clue about even the most basic aspects of what Renaud actually did, and as loathe as I am to point to yet another gracelessly aged politician and laugh, Nelson Muntz style, the entire spectacle is equally embarrassing and dangerous. We need politicians who are capable of understanding how our vastly networked world actually works and are capable of crafting legislation that serves their constituents just as we need reporters like Renaud who are able to identify a huge data breach, and proactively and responsibly report it out.
And because everything has been corroded by politics, it’s hard not to see this as yet another front in the ever expanding culture wars. I don’t typically follow Missouri politics and have no idea if there’s a history between Governor Parson and the Post-Dispatch that goes beyond the usual (and healthy) antagonism between a politician and the fourth estate; this may be some escalation in an ongoing feud or just more typical posturing from a political party that treats any form of accountability as a kind of dissent that must be crushed and regularly calls the free press the enemy of the people.
Hopefully, Renaud and the Post-Dispatch will be able to wear this as a badge of honor soon. It’s clear if government officials like Parson had their say, the outcome would be much different.
It pains me to say this, but as tech and media are one of the beats I pay attention to here, I just have point out what a truly terrible experience the Post-Dispatch’s website is. It’s honestly a case study in every user-hostile design anti-pattern a website could deploy. I recommend switching over to your browser’s reader mode as quickly as possible to read this story. ↩︎