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Potential release of GIS data involves 'serious privacy and security issues'
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<-- Return To Right-to-Know or Left-to-Wonder?


Potential release of GIS data involves 'serious privacy and security issues'

By Neil Vigdor
Staff Writer

November 2, 2002

Last time Greenwich undertook a major legal fight, the town lost a landmark court case over its residents-only beach policy.

The town could soon embark on another uphill legal battle -- trying to block a local man's request for unfettered access to computer records containing aerial photographs, road and sewer maps and property assessment data.

The records are part of a publicly funded geographic information system that town officials have been reluctant to fully share with the public since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They may have little choice, however.


The state Freedom of Information Commission will convene Nov. 13 in Hartford, at which time the five-member panel is expected to uphold a hearing officer's recommendation that the town release data tapes with the information to computer consultant Stephen Whitaker.

"I would say in a significant majority of cases, the commission accepts the hearing officer's report without major changes," said Tom Hennick, the agency's public education officer.

The Freedom of Information Commission handles public complaints regarding state and municipal agencies and departments that fail to disclose records to the public. Whitaker appealed to the agency last December after the town repeatedly denied his requests for access to the $3 million database.

If the commission sides with Whitaker, he will be entitled to copy the records onto a $20 digital storage tape. The transfer would take a matter of minutes, said Whitaker, who plans to sell the data in a useful format to homeowners.

The Greenwich resident won a similar battle in Vermont when he lived there in the early 1990s.

Whitaker emphasized that others could benefit from the data's release, saying that taxis could be dispatched more quickly, sidewalks repaired faster and emergency routes charted more precisely with the information.

"Everybody is going to use it to do their job more efficiently," Whitaker said.

First Selectman Richard Bergstresser vowed to challenge the hearing officer's recommendation and, if the commission upholds her finding, appeal the decision to state Superior Court.

"We're prepared to carry it as long as we can because we think there are very serious privacy and security issues involved," Bergstresser said.

The first selectman explained that he would call on Greenwich's state legislators to try to amend the state Freedom of Information Act to restrict the database's use.

"The FOI laws are archaic and need to be updated," Bergstresser said. "This is just one example."

To amend the state's FOI laws, the town's legislative delegation would first have to convince the General Assembly's Government Administration and Elections Committee to draft a bill. State Rep. Claudia "Dolly" Powers, R-151st District, broached the subject with little success during a prior legislative session.


The House minority whip pledged to revisit the issue with the committee members during the next legislative session, which begins in January. Powers plans to ask her legislative colleagues from Greenwich to join the cause, but admitted the case is an uphill battle.

Regarding a potential legal appeal, Powers said, "They're probably fighting a losing battle, but it's one they should probably fight."

High-profile residents would oppose having aerial photos of their homes disseminated freely, she added.

Whitaker has argued that high-profile figures could retain their obscurity by purchasing their homes through trusts and corporations without their names, as many already do.

"You don't look up Mel Gibson in the phone book and get a street address," Whitaker said, referring to one of Greenwich's more famous residents.

Tinkering with Freedom of Information laws to reflect technological advances such as GIS promises to be a thorny issue for the officials who want keep the database under wraps.

"We don't like exemptions," said Hennick, the FOI spokesman. "It eats away at the act."

Legislators acknowledge the town has an elitist reputation stemming from the beach case, and recognize they will have their work cut out for them to amend the state's FOI laws.

"If this ends up being a Greenwich bill, it'll be hard to get it passed," said state Rep. Lile Gibbons, R-150th District, who wants to hear both sides of the argument before getting further involved.

State Rep. Livvy Floren, R-149th District, who serves on the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said she is on the fence about whether to aid the town.

"I think it's valuable data that a lot of people could use," Floren said, explaining that the information's potential release has become a source of concern among several of her constituents. "It's making people nervous."

While security remains a trouble spot, Whitaker's plans to sell the information are even more distressing to some elected officials. Maintaining control of the information is worth going to court over, several leaders argued. The town's geographic information system cost $3 million to build in 1997.

"Why should we franchise that?" asked Sam Romeo, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting District 12 delegation. "I think he should pay us individuals, the taxpayers, a piece of the profits.

Romeo urged town leaders not to shy away from fighting the decision because of prior litigation such as the beach case.

"I would encourage the Board of Selectmen and (Board of Estimate and Taxation) to fight this to its fullest extent," he said. "I think we have to stop worrying about what people are going to think about Greenwich."

Copyright � 2002, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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Michael R. Meuser
Data Research & GIS Specialist is an independent firm specializing in GIS project development and data research. We created the first U.S. based interactive toxic chemical facility maps on the internet in 1996 and we have been online ever since. Learn more about us and our services.

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