Feds: Freedom of Information Act

Recent events in Tustin have pointed up problems of privacy of Internet correspondence between individuals and public agencies.

In the past we have examined how email or other Internet activity could be compromised as it traveled back and forth between the author and the recipient. But what about the contents of an email when it is directed to a public agency? For that matter, what about the privacy of an email when it simply is sent to another person who might not treat it as private?

Someone once stated that you never should write anything that you would not want read in a court of law or printed in a newspaper. This especially is true of email. It is so easy to sit in front of a computer and compose an email. Many times these emails are written in haste with not enough thought given to nuance. Could words be taken out of context or unintended partial quotes published? Further, if this email is sent to a public agency, could the whole thread of the correspondence be made public?

Federal law has a Freedom of Information Act that makes the non-classified correspondence of public agencies and individuals open to inspection by the public. In our state, the California Public Records Act opens correspondence with state and local agencies to inspection. Thus an email sent to a City of Tustin entity as well as any return correspondence may be open to the public, including newspapers, upon request.

I am not an attorney, so I cannot comment on the subtlety of these laws. I can however be aware that they exist and take precautions and be extremely careful when and if I correspond with any public entity.

Of course the same holds true about correspondence with anyone. In this day of "mouse clicks," it is so easy to have someone forward an electronic correspondence of yours to one or many people all over the world. If you don't want an email possibly read by many, don't send it.

There is another aspect of personal privacy that is a little different. This has to do with how easy it is for an interested person to gather some very private information about any of us. I am reading "The Art of Deception" by Kevin D. Mitnick, (Wiley, 2002), a convicted computer hacker. In his book he shows how easy it is for a person like himself to make three or four innocent sounding telephone calls and gather almost any private piece of information he wants. This includes Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and computer passwords.

For each of us, his tale points out that we should be extremely careful about divulging any personal information to a telephone caller, an emailer or anyone where we have not initiated the request. If the XYZ bank calls and says "this is Suzy in customer service. Our computer has had a problem and we are verifying credit card numbers. Please give me the last four digits of your husband's card number." Don't do it. If you really think it's your bank, call them back using the bank's regular telephone number and ask for Suzy. Suzy's next call might be to the credit card company saying that she is from the Security Department and has a garbled number and need the first set of digits to verify a problem. You see how this works.

Mitnick and others like him could do this with dozens of institutions and retrieve almost anything. Be careful, it's a tough world out there, especially in this electronic era.

If you would like to hear more about privacy, or other computer topics, visit "Coffee and Computers" at the Tustin Area Senior Center, 200 S. 'C' Street, any Friday morning starting at 9 a.m. Bring your questions or just come in and visit.

In the mean time, keep the neurons happy, synapses snapping and enjoy computing.


Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

Return to Doc's Home Page