LegiStorm tracks political aides' finances -- invades privacy, too?

The site says it has a First Amendment right to publish public data.


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Farhad Manjoo
April 9, 2008 8:03PM (UTC)

Aides to lawmakers on Capitol Hill are livid at LegiStorm, a company that recently began posting political staffers' financial information online.

LegiStorm's founder, the colorfully named Jock Friedly, says his mission is transparency: The public should be able to look at staffers' money dealings in order to spot corruption.

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The staffers, though, say the site puts them at risk of identity theft -- some of the documents that LegiStorm posted included peoples' addresses, bank account numbers, and other sensitive, private data.

This is an odd situation, because LegiStorm isn't really making the documents public -- Congress itself has long made these papers public.

As the Washington Post points out, federal law requires Congressional staffers making $110,000 or more per year to disclose their finances. Staffers aren't asked for their investment account numbers, but a few added that data carelessly. They must not have expected many people to look at the forms -- before LegiStorm, you could get the documents only from the basement of the Cannon House Office Building.

LegiStorm is simply making public data more accessible, in the same way that, say, Google does. But access matters, obviously: For staffers, it matters that

Friedly says that he has tried to scrub the data of Social Security and bank account numbers; when staffers have pointed out forms where that information was available, he's redacted it.

But some are asking for Friedly to also redact home addresses and signatures -- information that is available on most documents. This, Friedly says, will be a costly measure, and he wants Congress to pay $10,000 to do it.

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Want to see what your lawmakers' aides make? Check out LegiStorm's data here.

Aides to lawmakers on Capitol Hill are livid at LegiStorm, a company that recently began posting political staffers' financial information online.

LegiStorm's founder, the colorfully named Jock Friedly, says his mission is transparency: The public should be able to look at staffers' money dealings in order to spot corruption.

The staffers, though, say the site puts them at risk of identity theft -- some of the documents that LegiStorm posted included peoples' bank account numbers, children's names, and other sensitive, private data.

This is an odd situation, because LegiStorm isn't really making the documents public -- Congress itself has long made these papers public.

Advertisement:

As the Washington Post points out, federal law requires Congressional staffers who earn $110,000 or more per year to disclose their finances. Staffers aren't asked for their investment account numbers, but a few added such data carelessly. They must not have expected many people to look at the forms -- before LegiStorm, you could get the documents only from the basement of the Cannon House Office Building.

LegiStorm is simply making public data more accessible, in the same way that, say, Google does. But access matters, obviously: For staffers, it matters that the whole world, rather than just the folks who can trudge to Washington, can now see what they make. On the other hand, obviously accessibility is a boon to fighting corruption -- the more public finances will presumably help deter shady dealings.

Friedly says that he has tried to scrub the data of Social Security and bank account numbers; when staffers have pointed out forms where that information was available, he's redacted it.

Advertisement:

But some are asking for Friedly to also redact home addresses and signatures -- information that is available on most documents. This, Friedly says, will be a costly measure, and he wants Congress to pay $10,000 to do it.

The House Clerk's office tells the Washington Post that it's working on some deal with LegiStorm to balance the public interest and staffers' privacy, but details on that deal aren't public.

Want to see what your lawmakers' aides make? Check out LegiStorm's data here.

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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