Hawaii Corporation Counsel: County Internet Records, Not “Scandal”

The following is cut and pasted from the “Desk of Lincoln Ashida“:

County internet records, not “scandal”

Lincoln Ashida

On April 17, 2009, we explained why the County’s internet use records must remain confidential while an ongoing investigation is being conducted into allegations of inappropriate use. Monitoring of County employee internet use has been an ongoing effort for some time. Unfortunately, this process became publicly known as the “County internet scandal” when a Council member opted to report to the media that he had not been granted access to the individual reports for each County department. Sharing of confidential and sensitive information within the County is done on a “need to know” basis. In fact, the internet use reports for our County have not even been shared with the Mayor, but only with the department head of each County department or agency, per the requirements of the County’s existing policy. The Council member averred that his unsubstantiated claim of internet abuse (i.e., excessive web surfing during work hours) had a direct relationship to a lack of productivity, and this was an issue that should be addressed by the Council in their review of the County’s operating budget.

A review of the records from the major departments in our County reveals no evidence of widespread illegal or highly inappropriate internet use. For those isolated cases where there has been inappropriate use, department heads are authorized to conduct their own internal investigation and mete out discipline where appropriate. This is exactly why there were objections to having the Council member peruse these reports. Representatives of the legislative branch are not the appointing or supervising authority of administration employees (and vice versa), and lack jurisdiction to mete out discipline if warranted. You may view the Corporation Counsel’s internet use records for the calendar year 2008 here.

Earlier this week, a summary report on internet use for 2008 was sent to each department head. The department head must decide whether there is any information in these reports that must be redacted before they are released publicly. For example, the Civil Defense Agency has already pointed out that a secure website periodically accessed by them through the Fire Department (this site is identified by a numeric code) contains highly sensitive information and should not be released for fear of creating unwarranted widespread public panic since the information contained therein may not be the most current or updated. It is not a matter of playing “hide the ball.” It is a matter of making sure the County executes its responsibility of ensuring only credible information is released to the public in a timely manner, and to prevent “hackers” and other persons with nefarious interests to create public panic.

Once any redactions to these summaries are completed, the reports will be available to the public for their inspection and review.

Having accepted the Council member’s recommendation, the County’s Department of Data Systems is also compiling detailed reports for the top internet users in each department. These separate reports are not all completed. They will be forwarded to the respective department head for review. The department head may then review the reports and conduct additional investigation if warranted. If it is determined the nature of the sites visited and/or their duration are inappropriate, discipline may be meted out to the employee, along with other corrective action. The reason this must be done on a case-by-case basis is there may be a legitimate work-related reason for visiting certain sites, or for using the internet for extended periods of time. The productivity of the particular employee will also be a factor. Is the employee getting their work done or are they asking for overtime? The software used by the County has its natural limitations; it can only tell you what sites were visited and for how long the internet was being accessed; it can never tell you whether the employee was actively navigating the internet during those times (the internet could have been minimized on their screen) or what else the employee may have been doing. To this end, there is no substitute for each department having appropriate accountability safeguards such as supervision, timesheets, and progress monitoring.

If discipline is meted out by a department head, the detailed internet use records for that particular employee may be withheld from public inspection. State law allows the employer to withhold this information since it involves the significant privacy interest of the employee.

If no discipline is meted out, the detailed report should be released, together with any redactions consistent with protecting the identity of secured sites as explained above.

When will all this happen? Data Systems reports the individual summaries take anywhere between 5-8 hours per employee to run. But since this is an ongoing process, and we recognize and respect the request for information made by the Hawai‘i Tribune-Herald newspaper, the reports will be released once the department head has an opportunity to determine whether discipline is warranted.

When I was a youngster in the 1980’s, “Scandal” was a rock band I listened to on MTV. More appropriately Merriam-Webster defines scandal as “loss of or damage to reputation caused by actual or apparent violation of morality or propriety.” Perhaps an even more appropriate definition by Merriam-Webster is “malicious or defamatory gossip.” The rush to judgment by some in the local media in labeling this investigation as a “scandal” was made without responsible attention to the establishment of underlying facts to support such a claim.

As ever, if you have any comments or questions on the above or any matter, please feel free to email our office at Lashida@co.hawaii.hi.us, or call me at (808) 961-8304, extension 118. This message was posted on June 3, 2009, at 2:00 p.m.

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