When a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist discovered that the Missouri state teachers website allowed anyone to see the Social Security numbers of some 100,000 school employees, he did what any reporter might do. He published a story about the security vulnerability — though not before warning the state and giving it time to remove the affected webpages.
Another official might have thanked the newspaper for spotting the flaw and giving a heads-up before publicizing it — or at least downplayed what appears to be an embarrassing government mishap. But Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) did the opposite: He called the journalist “a hacker” who may face civil or criminal charges for “decod[ing]” HTML code on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website and viewing three Social Security numbers.
The journalist was “acting against the state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information in an attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet,” Parson announced Thursday. He said that he had referred the case to the Cole County prosecutor and the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Digital Forensic Unit.
The announcement immediately drew appalled reactions from the Post-Dispatch and other journalistic organizations.
“We stand by our reporting and our reporter who did everything right,” Ian Caso, president and publisher of the Post-Dispatch, said in a statement. “It’s regrettable the governor has chosen to deflect blame onto the journalists who uncovered the website’s problem and brought it to DESE’s attention.”
Committee to Protect Journalists’ U.S. and Canada program coordinator Katherine Jacobsen called Parson’s legal threats “absurd.”
“Using journalists as political scapegoats by casting routine research as ‘hacking’ is a poor attempt to divert public attention from the government’s own security failing,” she told The Washington Post in an email.
A spokeswoman for…