‘Cookie’ suit threatens privacy for public employees

If you’ve ever suspected that somebody in your schools might be visiting web sites they shouldn’t, you ought to know about this case pending in a federal court in Nashville, Tenn.

An online newspaper in Cookeville, Tenn., filed suit last summer against the town government to gain access to the information stored in electronic “cookies” on the hard drives of municipal computers.

Among other things, Cookie files trace the itinerary of a computer’s web browser and, consequently, could allow reporters to discover what web sites government employees have been visiting.

The electronic newspaper, called the “Putnam Pit,” after its location in Tennessee’s Putnam County, claims the cookie files are public records that may be viewed under the state’s open record law. Every state and the District of Columbia has such laws, which apply to schools as well as municipal agencies.

Officially, Geoff Davidian, publisher of the “Putnam Pit,” demands to know if government employees are visiting sites “not consistent with government employment, such as adult-oriented pornography sites or ones advocating white supremacy, or Satanism, or worse,” court records indicated.

Late last year, Davidian tacked on a claim that the town’s refusal to serve up the cookies also violated his First Amendment rights. That got the case moved to a federal court in Nashville, where it currently awaits resolution.

Experts in cyberlaw say the issue turns on whether electronic cookies are ephemeral “working papers,” as the Cookeville town attorney argues, or whether they’re public records. If the courts hold that cookies are like working papers, the files might be protected from public scrutiny — at least in Tennessee, legal experts opine.

Most of the legal experts who have weighed in on this issue would advise school employees to assume their cookies are public records and surf accordingly.

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