Clueless Lawmaker Wants To Prosecute A Journalist For Looking At A Website’s HTML Code
When St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Josh Renaud reported a serious security problem with a State of Missouri website, he thought he was doing the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) a favor. Missouri Governor Mike Parson didn’t see it that way, and now wants to prosecute the journalist. In spite of the fact that websites have been open to the public for more than 30 years, Parson and many lawmakers are embarrassingly unfamiliar with how the technology works.
Renaud discovered DESE’s website source code had exposed Social Security numbers of more than 100,000 school teachers, administrators, and counselors. The journalist behaved with ethics and integrity, alerting the department of the error and waiting for the vulnerability to be resolved before publishing a story reporting the problem.
Gov. Parson, in return, accused Renaud of “hacking” the DESE website. Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven, preparing to thank the newspaper for discovering the vulnerability, decided otherwise after meeting with the governor. Instead, the Education Commissioner sent a letter to educators claiming Renaud “took the records of at least three educators, unencrypted the source code from the webpage, and viewed the social security number (SSN) of those specific educators”.
For those unfamiliar with how web pages work, they are chiefly written in HTML. The source code is transmitted, as unencrypted plain text, across the Internet to your web browser. Anybody knowing how to view the page source could access the information erroneously included in the website’s HTML.
According to records the St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained, the FBI even advised the state of this. Agents told state officials the site had been “misconfigured,” and the reporter’s actions did not constitute “an actual network intrusion”.
Despite all of this, Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson took over the case from the Missouri State Highway Patrol on Dec. 27, 2021. Gov. Parson, in a Dec. 29 press conference, suggested Thompson should prosecute Renaud and the newspaper under a state statute covering computer tampering.