Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jeb Bush's e-mail

On Monday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush placed online copies of hundreds of thousands of e-mails he sent and received while in office. Bush is actively exploring the possibility of running for President and has stated that he released the messages to show his commitment to transparency and his embrace of information technology; many political observers have concluded that the release is also meant to prove that he's a dedicated, responsive, and effective executive. Things did not go quite as planned, and the resulting uproar ought to be of interest to any government archivist who might accession electronic records that contain legally restricted information, respond to FOI requests for born-digital or digitized records, or confront the sweeping records requests that invariably occur whenever a former official seeks higher office.

As soon as the e-mails were released, tech journalists and bloggers began exploring the search interface that Bush's staff created and the contents of the messages their searches yielded. They found thousands of Social Security numbers, home addresses, and tons of other personal data that had not been redacted. The Verge, Ars Technica, Buzzfeed, and a host of other media outlets quickly redacted and published copies of numerous e-mails that contained such information, and Bush and his staff quickly promised that they would remove Social Security numbers and other personal data. However, the e-mails – in searchable database form as well as downloadable Microsoft Personal Storage Table (PST) files – were freely available online for almost a day before the Bush team decided to take action.

Bush and his staff were also quick to point fingers. Yesterday, Bush told reporters in Tallahassee that the messages were public records held by the Florida State Archives (which is part of the state's Department of State) and that he and his staff had merely "released what the government gave us." The Bush team also revealed that in May 2014, an attorney representing Bush sent a letter to an unidentified state official asserting that the state was responsible for redacting any legally restricted information found within the e-mails:
We hope these emails will be available permanently to the public, provided the records are first reviewed by state officials in accordance with Florida Statute to ensure information exempt from public disclosure is redacted before release, including social security numbers of Florida citizens who contacted Governor Bush for assistance; personal identifying information related to victims of crime or abuse; confidential law enforcement intelligence; and other information made confidential or exempt by applicable law.
The Florida State Archives holds 26.2 gigabytes of Bush's gubernatorial e-mail, and the catalog record describing the correspondence indicates that the records consist of "PST files" that "must be loaded onto user's hard drive and opened using MS Outlook software." The catalog record makes no mention of access restrictions, and unredacted copies of the files have evidently been disclosed to other researchers. Yesterday, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that many of the e-mails Bush released on Monday had first been disclosed to reporters shortly after they were created or received and that several media organizations, NPR among them, had previously obtained copies of the full set from the Florida State Archives.

At this point in time, I am not going to second-guess or condemn the Florida State Archives. I simply don't know enough about Florida's Sunshine Law, which is more expansive than many other state freedom of information laws, or the Florida State Archives' disclosure protocols to come to any sort of informed conclusion. I do know that the Sunshine Law for the most part bars the disclosure of Social Security numbers, but many freedom of information laws mandate that previously disclosed information cannot be withheld for any reason; given that many of these e-mails had been disclosed to reporters while Bush was in office, the Florida State Archives might have no choice but to release them without redacting them. To date, no one from the Florida State Archives or Florida Department of State has commented upon this matter, but I hope that some sort of explanation will eventually be made.

I am more willing to second-guess Jeb Bush and his associates. As the Miami Herald has pointed out, the May 2014 letter written by Bush's attorney strongly suggests that Bush has been seriously thinking about running for president for quite some time. To my way of thinking, it also suggests that Bush or, at the very least, his lawyers knew that the e-mail contained legally restricted information, decided that the State of Florida was solely responsible for redacting it prior to disclosure, and figured that it was ethically okay to make information that Florida couldn’t or wouldn’t redact a lot easier to find. Requesting a PST file from the Florida State Archives and importing it into Microsoft Outlook doesn’t require a ton of effort or technical know-how, but at least some of the people who are now idly rummaging through the searchable Web database of e-mails created by the Bush campaign probably wouldn’t feel the need to make the effort. Manual redaction and review of e-mail is a pain – trust me on this – but there are numerous tools that will flag and facilitate redaction of Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, and other consistently formatted data. Why didn't the Bush camp make even a modest attempt to weed out the Social Security numbers?

Finally, I must be a bit skeptical about the Bush camp's claims of transparency: the Tampa Bay Times recently reported that Bush used a private e-mail account to conduct all state business and transferred only some of the messages associated with this account to the archives when he left office. Specifically, all messages relating to “politics, fundraising, and personal matters” were removed prior to transfer. I have no problem with purging messages relating to purely personal matters, but the removal of messages relating to political affairs and fundraising efforts raises a few questions in my mind. How were these messages identified? Were they identified as they were sent or received, or was there a massive end-of-term review effort? If the latter, who was involved in the review and what criteria were employed? And, of course, why didn't Bush use a state government e-mail account to conduct state business?

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