Commentary December 31, 2012

Why the Journal News was Wrong About Publishing Gun Owner Information

In the aftermath of the Journal News’ recent publication of the identity of every handgun license in two counties, their claim that it would be good for starting a dialog on gun ownership is proving to be very wrong. There is discussion, not about guns, but about privacy and what constitutes responsible use of public information. On a personal level, I feel far more vulnerable as a non-gun owner than I did a week ago. It is now easier to find me and target my home and family.

The defense the Journal News offers hinges on the fact that the data was public. But what the editors do not distinguish is the difference between making information available and crossing the line and aggregating that information. The JN is not an almanac. They did not report news. They made it.

Here’s why.

I am a real estate broker. I am also a member of the Multiple Listing Service and have access to that database. The MLS has records of every home in 5 counties via a direct link to public records. Just by knowing your name or address, I can typically tell you what you paid for your home, what mortgages have been recorded on it, and if there are other liens or judgements on the property. It is all in public records, but the non licensed person would only have access to that information by going to the county clerk or paying a website for access, which can be pricey.

If I were to exploit my access to this information and publish on my blog, for example, everyone in Westchester with a mechanics lien or mortgage default, the backlash would be justifiably significant. My job is to use that information to serve clients, not enrich myself by distributing it. Information can be abused. Access does not make it right to aggregate.

I’ll repeat that: access to public data does not make it right to aggregate and mass distribute that information.

In a society where property records and property ownership are transparent, that access to public records is a public good. However, that doesn’t mean that access gives me or anyone else the right to distribute that information to anyone who would not otherwise seek it through the regular channels. All that does is feed the least common denominator who neither went to the clerk’s office nor paid a reputable source for it. The same goes for gun records.

The cynical side of me makes me wonder if this was all just a ploy to be relevant. I haven’t subscribed to the Journal News in years and stopped frequenting their website when they introduced the paywall. Now the publication is discussed coast to coast. Unfortunately, the discussion is not about gun ownership. It is about the paper’s decision to distribute the data.

In an era where we all hope and pray that the 26 lost souls in Newtown did not die in vain, that is a very sad thing indeed. In light of their promise to publish the data on Putnam County, we should also remind them that their job is to report news, not be the news.

Just one last thing: I may not be in the database of handgun licensees (for now), but we do have a 95 pound German Shepherd.