Any cyber-security adviser worth their salt will tell you not to include personal information in an email – that’s just common sense. Sending someone a message with your home address, or your medical and employment information, is a quick and easy way to have your identity stolen, and a fast track to spending an afternoon canceling your credit cards. But what about when you’re emailing a government official? Say, for example, the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush.
In an effort to promote his upcoming book (which is probably an effort to promote an upcoming national campaign), Jeb Bush previewed the first chapter, featuring email correspondence between himself and any constituent who felt like reaching out to his personal address, Jeb@jebbush.com. The conversations that appear in the book are mostly unedited, and paint a picture of the governor as a communicative, helpful, and frank politician. The problem isn’t those conversations that appear in the book, it’s all of the remaining emails, which anyone is free to browse at their own leisure, sorted conveniently by date.
Digging through the archive of hundreds of thousands of message between Jeb and his constituents, you can find a shocking wealth of unredacted personal data. The most innocuous is probably the email address of anyone who reached out to him, and it gets worse from there. Phone numbers, home and work addresses, medical information for children, some named explicitly, as presented by their parents. Personal finance and tax issues sometimes make their way into messages, with some people even including their social security numbers.
As you scroll through Jeb’s responses, you’ll occasionally stumble across a disclaimer that reads something like this: “Please note: Florida has a very broad public records law. Most written communications to or from state officials regarding state business are public records available to the public and media upon request. Your e-mail communications may therefore be subject to public disclosure.”
It reads a lot like those email disclaimers people often include in their own signatures, warning recipients not to share the contents of an email. In reality, these statements have never been taken into consideration in any sort of legal proceeding — they’re pretty much useless, save for easing the nervousness of the sender. Bush’s disclaimer serves as a reminder of Florida’s Sunshine laws, which grant the public access to just about everything happening behind the scenes in government. Transparency has been an important part of Florida law since 1909, with the definition of “public” being considered carefully, and often. In fact, it’s the whole reason that there isn’t any legal recourse for citizens whose personal information has been shared — their correspondence with the governor is considered public record.
Jeb Bush is acutely familiar with Sunshine laws, as well as their importance to the press and citizens of Florida. Immediately after taking office he scheduled a brief meeting with the Democratic and Republican state congressional leaders, to which he didn’t invite any members of the press. They immediately insinuated he was hiding something, and in an email with a former gubernatorial employee, he responds “I wonder if this email is a matter of public record??????????????????” Ironically enough, the email found its way into the very first chapter of his book.
Bush team has been quick to respond to complaints by redacting information and removing messages entirely when needed. He also accepted the resignation of his chief technical officer, Ethan Czahor, who caused controversy a number of times in the last few years by tweeting racist and misogynist sentiments. Maybe most importantly of all, they pulled the download links for the sortable databases of the emails. But on the Internet, it’s a lot easier to let the cat out of the bag than it is to get it back in.
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