The bill defines the protected information to include “one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural, or social identity of the individual,” in addition to location or identification numbers, but does not define what information meets that criteria. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Texas Legislature considering bill to make it harder to get public information about government employees
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would restrict state agencies from sharing salary data and other typically public information about government employees with the public in a bill that experts say is overly broad.
Senate Bill 16, filed by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would require an individual’s written consent for a state agency to share their personal information. The bill has been declared a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. His office did not respond to a request for comment. It’s coauthored by 29 out of 31 members of the Senate, suggesting it has widespread bipartisan support.
Public records — such as elected officials’ salaries or the demographics of appointees to state agencies — are widely used to understand how tax dollars are spent and who is representing Texans in state government. Data such as Social Security numbers and medical records are already protected by the state and not subject to the Public Information Act.
The bill defines the protected information to include “one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural, or social identity of the individual,” in addition to location or identification numbers, but does not define what information meets that criteria.
Nelson declined to answer questions for this story but said in a statement that the legislation comes in response to an increase in cases of personal data being compromised. In November 2020, about 27.7 million Texans had their drivers license numbers, names, addresses and more exposed in a Vertafore data breach. Vertafore is an insurance software provider who admitted that some data files were accidentally stored in an unsecured external storage service and a third-party was able to access the information.
“Our agencies are in possession of highly sensitive personal data, and they have a duty to protect it,” Nelson said in a statement. “Texans should not have to worry about their personal data being sold or shared with third parties without permission.”
Public information experts say there is no clear reason why the changes proposed in the bill would be necessary.
“There are already a lot of protections for privacy,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “If you're looking at government records, it's going to be inevitable that you're going to sometimes need to look at certain data like names, or where that person in a public agency works or salary. Many different aspects of individual information may be important, but it's not something that compromises the privacy of the person.”
Shannon said certain data is necessary for employers to conduct background checks or for the public to know the racial and gender breakdowns of state agencies that serve them.
“It's not just somebody being curious and looking for someone's private information — there's real legitimate business reasons that public records and … personal information is sold,” Shannon said. “There are those who buy such information so that business operations can be easily facilitated. All types of information would be just put off limits, as (the bill is) written.”
The organization’s past president, Wanda Garner Cash, agreed that the laws in place are sufficient to protect personal and private information.
“If you want to find out the driving record of the person who drives your kid to school every day on a school bus, this law will shut it down and you won't be able to get that information,” Cash said. “There are sufficient restrictions in place to protect us. I always err on the side of disclosure.”
Public records have also been important for finding out who was involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Cash said.
“Government employees from Texas were involved that day,” she said. “How many were in that mob? And how do we find out except by looking at their travel records, looking at their cellphone records? We need that information.”
Shannon said the bill also is confusing because it expands the definition of what counts as personal data to things that aren’t normally included in government records, such as genetics.
“I presume they have a goal in mind, but it's not real clear exactly what they're trying to do,” Shannon said.
Nelson did not respond to questions about Shannon and Garner’s concerns, but said “since Senate Bill 16 was introduced, I have been gathering input from various stakeholders and will have a committee substitute to address many of these issues.”
The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, but it was referred to the Senate Finance Committee, which Nelson herself chairs.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/04/20/texas-legislature-public-information/.
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