Privacy concerns at Post

June 14, 2008

by David Kopel

If Gladys Kravitz, the obnoxiously nosy neighbor from the TV series and movie Bewitched, had to choose a favorite Denver paper, I suspect that she would pick The Denver Post. Last week, the Post published on its Web site the name, job title and compensation of more than 37,000 state of Colorado government employees, as well as employees of the University of Colorado and community college systems. The information is in searchable databases in the "Data Center" at

Advocates for domestic violence victims quickly objected, arguing that the database could provide a tool for abusers to find victims who are in hiding. In the comments section of the Post Web site, many state employees worried that the database would facilitate identity theft.

The Post's managing editor for digital media, Mark Cardwell, wrote an online response stating that similar "databases have been published in other states with no identity or safety repercussions." I contacted the National White Collar Crime Center, which is an investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, and was told that the limited information in the Post database would not create a risk of identity theft. Thus far, the Colorado critics have not pointed to actual examples from other states of domestic violence victims, correctional officers or other persons being harmed as a result of similar databases.

Legally speaking, state employee salaries are public records. But although the Post did not violate legal privacy rights, I think that the database violates the reasonable privacy interests of state employees. For example, if you are trying to decide whether state employees are underpaid or overpaid, you might want to know that someone engaged in maintenance for the Colorado Department of Transportation makes $59,638 (a figure which includes salary, stipends, per diem and overtime). But you don't need to know that person's name.

I asked Cardwell why the Post didn't just publish the compensation data without the names. He explained: "By attaching names to the salaries, we make our government more transparent. This allows the public to identify abuses and inequalities in a way publishing classification information would not. We discussed a cutoff for a minimum salary, but we believe that this would be arbitrary. In another state, there was an issue around school janitors making more than the school's principals - and there was also a chronic problem around 'no-show' workers. Putting salaries to names is the best way to uncover these sort of issues."

Cardwell is right that a salary cutoff for naming names would be "arbitrary," but so is any line-drawing. For example, the legal age of adulthood is, in most cases 18 years, but it's arbitrary to say that a person who is exactly 18 is significantly more mature than someone who is 17 years and 11 months. Any line chosen for a privacy cutoff - such as $40,000 or $60,000 - would be arbitrary. But that doesn't mean that no effort should be made to protect the privacy of lower-level employees.

To identify some disparities (such as the principals-vs.-janitors example Cardwell cited), one needs only job titles, not employee names.

Moreover, while transparency is an important value, it's not the only value. After all, the Post does not publish the salaries of its own employees, or a full record of all the investments of Post publisher Dean Singleton, even though the Post has every legal right to do so, and publishing the information might identify unfair inequalities or conflicts of interest.

As a legal issue, the clerk who works for the Post is different from the one who works for the Colorado Historical Society. But as an issue of good journalistic judgment, my view is that both clerks have privacy interests that should be respected by not publishing their compensation online.

Commendably, the Post opened up an online readers poll about the database. With more than 3,700 votes, 73 percent said that the publication was "really wrong," and another 14 percent said it was "wrong." Only 5 percent said it was "not wrong" and that they were "glad to have that info." Another 5 percent said there was "nothing wrong."

Cardwell attributed the landslide negative results to the intense feelings of state employees. But even if many of the "wrong" votes came from angry state employees, the small number of "glad to have that info" votes (under 200 readers) indicates that public interest in pushing salary transparency to its legal limits may not be very great. In regard to privacy, I think the Post's readers showed better judgment than did its staff.


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