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The Information War
 

by Robert Franco

July-05-07 Reprinted with permission

It used to be that the mainstream media had a monopoly on publishing and they took advantage of their First Amendment rights to do so. The Internet has changed all that and now the shoe is on the other foot. Last month, the Sandusky Register in Ohio published a list of nearly 2,700 individuals who have concealed carry permits. The list was not public, but the media had been permitted access to it.

In response, the Buckeye Firearms Association published an article on their Web site criticizing the paper's decision to make the list public.

By publishing lists of persons who have obtained concealed handgun licenses, newspapers such as the Sandusky Register have taken private, non-public record information and made it public. Specifically, because of their actions, the general public may now know who owns and may or may not carry a gun. Additionally, the general public now knows who is not carrying a gun in their day to day activities.

Beyond the fact that the Register has now made public that which statutorily was not to be public, what harm can come from this? Buckeye Firearms Association previously brought you the story of a prison guard who was tracked down by a former inmate by using a concealed carry license list published in the local paper. However, beyond this explicit example, the general public remains largely unaware of just how much harm can come from this...

But, the Buckeye Firearms Association didn't stop there. They did their own digging through the Public Records to see what they could find out about Matt H. Westerhold, the editor of the Sandusky Register. They included a long list of their findings in their article.

It is very easy to determine that Mr. Westerhold has gone to pretty significant steps to insure that his own personal information is not public. In fact, having his name and county of residence (such as was published on the Sandusky Register's list of CHL-holders) would have saved us significant work. Running general searches will not yield a home address or phone number for him.

We do learn that he owns 322 Deepwood Lane in Amherst, Ohio. However, a quick search reveals that Mesh*** Elsw*** has the phone service there, and she claims to be a renter of Mr. Westerhold and states that Matt does not live there. Turning to the County Recorder, we see that Mr. Westerhold’s mortgage with Union National is a residential mortgage, not a commercial/rental property mortgage. If we were vindictive, we could contact the bank and let them know that Mr. Westerhold is now allegedly renting the property out to a renter, since that is potentially a default under the residential mortgage allowing the bank to foreclose the mortgage.

We also easily learn that Mr. Westerhold was cited into Oberlin Municipal Court for failure to wear a seatbelt and given a warning for speeding. We see he drives a 2003 Blue Chevy Tracker license plate DA*3816. A bad guy now has a car to look for around the Register’s parking lot if he wants to find him.

The real goldmine for the person who intends to cause harm to Mr. Westerhold is his Dissolution. With little effort we find his date of birth is 11/**/1958 and his Social Security number is 2**-56-6***. We also see his prior employment history and yearly salary. Having his full name, date of birth, social security number, prior employer, prior salary and current employer and a guess at his salary, combined with knowing from the Dissolution that he has/had an Auto Loan with XYZ bank and knowing his current mortgage amount and details, it would be child’s play for a bad guy to open up credit accounts and commit various other acts of identity theft against him.

More seriously, for the hardcore bad guy, these Public Records (per the Dissolution settlement) show that Matt has a pre-teen child who resides with his ex-wife. Reviewing the child support worksheet and the financial affidavits, we see that no tuition or school payments are listed, so it is a relatively high percentage bet that the child is a public school student. We see from the worksheet that mom has custody, so the child almost certainly is the residential parent for school purposes. From further Public Records, we see the marriage license from Mr. Westerhold’s ex-wife a year after the dissolution, and we already knew her date of birth, social security number and recent employer from the Dissolution. With very little effort we find ex-wife’s residence and now are relatively sure of which public school his pre-teen child goes to simply by checking the auditor’s maps for this residence for school districts. A check of the school website will show us the bus schedule for that particular school and that street or address, so we will almost certainly, with little effort, know which bus the child rides and what time it picks up/drops off. Further, most public libraries keep copies of the local school yearbooks in the reference section. Even if that is not the case, it is going to be fairly easy to get the yearbook and probably get a picture of the child for identification purposes.

Chilling, isn’t it?

I would say that it is indeed chilling. This small "information war" between the Sandusky Register and the Buckeye Firearms Association is just a small example of what happens when you combine open access to Public Records with the Internet. Information that could have, and probably should have, remained buried in the Public Records is now out on the Internet for anyone with a grudge against Mr. Westerhold to find with a simple Google search of his name. In fact, googling his name in quotes returns the article, as reprinted on the Professional Soldiers Website, as the first result. (And... now its available here on my blog.)

This type of information has long been "public record," but the instant availability has potentially made the information much more harmful. What used to take a trip to the county courthouse and some knowledge about where to look once you got there, now can often be accomplished with Google. Any search engine can at least get someone to the right website to begin their search.

It is one thing when the information is published for a good reason, but it is quite another when it serves no newsworthy purpose. Here, the Sandusky Register really didn't have a legitimate purpose to publish the names, ages, and counties of the conceal carry permit holders. And, most certainly, the Buckeye Firearms Association had no good reason, other than spite, to publish their findings on Mr. Westerhold. But, the First Amendment and our Public Records laws allow them to do it anyway.

What the whole fiasco does do, though, is attract more attention to the shortcomings of our privacy and Public Records laws. Perhaps we should be grateful to them for that. But what will be next? The newspaper could begin their own digging through the Public Records for information on members of the Buckeye Firearms Association. Where does it end?

As I have said many times before, our Public Records laws are too outdated to deal with this type of abuse of the Public Records. Journalistic integrity is surely not enough to protect us, especially when so many publishers on the Internet are not really journalists. And, more often, the information is gathered and sold for a profit by corporations - not journalists.

Surely, this cannot be what was ever intended to become of our Public Records. They are there to serve a legal purpose, to preserve and protect our rights as citizens and to provide a system for checks and balances on our government. The Public Records were never meant to serve as canon fodder in private information wars between parties who now have the power to publish the information on the Internet for no other reason than to cause grief to individuals.

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About the author:

Robert A. Franco has been in the title industry for nearly 15 years in the state of Ohio. The owner of VersaTitle, a full service abstracting and title company, and the founder and president of Source of Title, a Web site devoted to providing media and marketing services to the title industry, Franco has dedicated much of his professional career to furthering the role and significance of title examiners in the title insurance industry... about Robert Franco

Robert can be reached at  rfranco@sourceoftitle.com

 

  

 

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