Bloomberg News detailed the specifics of the governor of Missouri's war against a reporter who did nothing more than right-click on a state's website. According to newly obtained emails, the governor's lawyers and staff are being exposed for an attempt to use a report of a security breach as a campaign issue.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Josh Renaud did nothing more than open a website, but Republican Gov. Mike Parson thinks that means he's a hacker. It began when Renaud discovered a massive security breach when he right-clicked on a government site that publicly listed thousands of Missouri educators and their social security numbers. Parson then demanded that a local prosecutor file charges against Renaud.
While it's unclear if a case has actually been brought, or even what Renaud could be charged with, but Missouri does have recourse for anyone filing frivolous lawsuits.
"Even in a post-Trump era where 'fake news' barbs have become commonplace, it’s altogether different to sic law enforcement on the Fourth Estate for essentially hitting the F12 key and examining a website’s source code," said Bloomberg.
Parson's spokeswoman told Bloomberg, "Hacking is NOT journalism." It's reminiscent of Sen. Ted Stevens' 2006 speech against streaming video in which he called the internet "a series of tubes." Stevens proclaimed on the Senate floor that his staff had sent him "an internet" on Friday that he didn't get until Monday because the internet was clogged up. Streaming video is now so prevalent that nearly everything on television is available online within 24 hours.
Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp tried a similar effort in 2018 saying that the Democratic Party hacked the voter registration website after they alerted the government to security vulnerabilities in their system. Documents showed that Kemp quietly fixed the problem and his claims were destroyed publicly. But at the time he was locked in a campaign against Stacey Abrams. The reports to discredit Kemp didn't come out until early 2020, well after he was elected.
Any person with a web browser can click on the source code of any website. In Chrome, for example, one would click "View," then "Developer," and "View Source." Another way to do it is by right-clicking or hitting "control" and clicking on the website and clicking "view page source."
Renaud reached out to the government in good faith to alert them to the security problem, but emails sent among Parson's staff after being alerted reveal the real-time decision to make Renaud into a "hacker."
"Some of those notes were first reported by the Post-Dispatch, while others I received under open-records laws revealed general disinclination to speak to the press," said the report. "In reply after reply, Parson’s spokespeople tried to paint Renaud’s journalism as 'more than just a right click' on a web browser. In the emails, one draft talking point mirrored language earlier used by Parson’s top lawyer, Andrew Bailey, alleging the reporter took 'eight separate steps' to get the Social Security numbers (one of which, I’m told, was opening a new tab in Google Chrome)."
"The spokesperson said that Gov. Parson intends "to bring to justice anyone who hacked our system and anyone who aided or encouraged him to do so—in accordance with what Missouri law allows AND requires."
As a fact-check, opening a new tab in Google Chrome isn't hacking, nor is viewing the source code.
Parson is now turning the case into a major campaign issue, spending campaign cash to air an ad attacking the "squalid excuse for journalism."
“The problem here is the state’s accidental disclosure of information,” Bloomberg cited Knight First Amendment Institute litigation director Alex Abdo. “We should be celebrating the fact that someone discovered this flaw and reported it.”
Parson has already fixed the website, but without the security vulnerabilities, effectively admitting that there was a problem.
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