County Eyes Regulation Change To Protect Privacy of Government-Held Email Address Lists

County Eyes Regulation Change To Protect Privacy of Government-Held Email Address Lists

Move comes after County Council legislation scheduled to be introduced Tuesday to prevent lists being posted online was pulled

| Published:

Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer

via Montgomery County

Montgomery County leaders are planning to change a regulation associated with the county’s open data law in order to protect the privacy of government-held email address lists after the release of more than 200,000 addresses to a Bethesda resident.

On Tuesday, County Council member Hans Riemer pulled a bill that would have changed the county law because he said it was no longer needed.

In an interview with Bethesda Beat on Wednesday, Riemer said the county determined Monday that language could be altered in the open data law’s implementation plan to prevent the email address lists from being posted online. The implementation plan regulates what information the county must post online to its open data portal. Such an alternation would make a legislative change unnecessary, Riemer said.

County leaders were looking to alter the law—which includes language requiring the county to post responses to public information requests on the data portal—after Bethesda resident Robert Lipman received the county’s Paperless Airplane newsletter email list of more than 120,000 email addresses and also 90,000 email addresses from lists maintained by council members. Lipman received the addresses after making a public information request to the county.

For more than a week, the Paperless Airplane list was posted on the data portal and could be downloaded in a spreadsheet format by anyone who accessed it. However, the list was pulled from the data portal recently and replaced with a text document that reads, “the list was provided to Mr Lipman, the requester only [sic].”

The email addresses of those who contacted council members and received members’ newsletters were posted to the data portal briefly last month and then removed after Riemer said he would introduce legislation to prevent them from being posted online.

Lipman, who opposed development in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood during the county’s sector plan review process for the area, received the email address lists in February and March as part of his effort to launch the voters’ information group MoCo Voters. He now says he doesn’t plan to use the email addresses because he later learned from the email marketing company MailChimp that newsletters are more effective when users opt in to receive them.

Riemer said Wednesday the council soon will receive a draft regulation to change the implementation plan.

“We know this process has been messy,” Riemer said, “but we’re trying to address it in real-time. I felt it was important to get the data down as fast as possible and not leave it up there while we worked on it. We’re doing our best to address this issue.”

Council members were concerned the email address lists would be used for purposes—such as by mass email marketers—that residents or other individuals wouldn’t anticipate when they signed up to receive information from the county. After news of the release of the email addresses broke last month, the county received an apparently tongue-in-cheekrequest for the lists from a supposed “Nigerian Prince” who claimed to have a lucrative investment opportunity for county residents.

Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for County Executive Ike Leggett, said Wednesday that Leggett supports changing the regulation to keep the email address lists from being easily downloaded from the data portal.

Lacefield noted the county still must provide the email address lists under the Maryland Public Information Act if someone requests them, but it can keep track of who requests the information, which it could not when the lists could be downloaded from the data portal.

Neither Lacefield nor Riemer knew how many people downloaded the email addresses while they were posted on the data portal.

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