What’s wrong with Kern High School District administrators accessing a confidential database to spy on students, employees and just about anyone administrators target?
First, it’s against the law. But then you also have to wonder about a mindset that shows such little respect for privacy rights.
Students, parents and taxpayers deserve an explanation. District Superintendent Byron Schaefer must take ownership of this latest controversy to rock the district and explain why KHSD administrators resorted to spying and what steps are being taken to end the district’s misuse of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, known as CLETS.
District Attorney Lisa Green must explain what action her office will take to punish those involved and ensure the security of the sensitive government database. And Sheriff Donny Youngblood, whose officers investigated the abuse and forwarded evidence to the District Attorney’s office, must explain if he will continue to allow KHSD officers to access CLETS through his authority.
Jose Gaspar, a KBAK/KBFX news reporter who also writes a weekly column for The Californian, reported about a years-long pattern of district administrators misusing the database to check out such things as student athletes’ residences, staff driving records, a worker’s claim of an on-the-job injury, and even a special education student.
Reportedly the pattern involved administration staff directing the high school district’s police chief to retrieve confidential information from CLETS. Access to the system is supposed to be limited primarily to law enforcement officers who are investigating active cases. The limits are set to protect people’s privacy, as well as to protect the system from manipulation.
Mind you, this database is not just a collection of information about “bad guys.” It is a database of information contributed by numerous government agencies about everyone -- the good, the bad and the everyday guys. If misused, access to the database can lead to mischief, including identity theft.
For example, the database contains the details of such things as vehicle information, occupational licenses, parking tickets, minor citations, gun ownership, etc. You get the idea. It’s not just a listing of arrests and criminal convictions. And the content is continually growing, with recent discussion about adding facial recognition files.
But we are told not to worry about this government surveillance because laws have been passed to keep the information confidential, with only limited, monitored access and restricted distribution.
We now learn from the KHSD case that these safeguards are false assurances. When the newly hired high school district police chief learned about past improper access to the database, he asked the Kern County Sheriff's Department to investigate. What happened? The chief was put on administrative leave, despite the fact that sheriff's investigators reported wrongdoing. The DA’s office has declined to prosecute anyone and no one at KHSD wants to talk about it.
But the matter should not end there.
Technology advances allow the increasing collection of information about all of us. Click onto a website; buy a product online; obtain a government permit; walk by a store entrance camera; use your cell phone. You name it. We are being tracked and watched nearly all the time.
Appropriately used by law enforcement, this collected information can help keep us safe. But when the information is misused, it violates our privacy and sometimes puts us in danger. Privacy advocates have long expressed concern about the growing “information industry,” and with good reason.
And with good reason, limits have been set on the use of CLETS. As this database grows, it is critical that these limits be respected and misuse punished.