Blown To Bits

The Checks on Joe the Plumber

Friday, October 31st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The tale of Joe the Plumber is developing a thousand derivative lives. One, at least, is a bits story.

After Joe Wurzelbacher became a celebrity, someone in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services ran a check on the state databases to see if he owed any child support. The McCain campaign has cried foul, and accused the Obama campaign of doing it. The Department has a non-political explanation, reported here:

Given our understanding that Mr. Wurzelbacher had publicly indicated that he had the means to purchase a substantial business enterprise, ODJFS, consistent with past departmental practice, checked confidential databases to make sure that if Mr. Wurzelbacher did owe child support, or unemployment compensation taxes, or was receiving public assistance, appropriate action was being taken.

Believe that or not as you wish. There doesn’t seem to be a written policy that spells this out, or a list of the other people who have been subject to this practice. It’s not helpful that the head of the office is a $2500 donor to the Obama campaign. On the other hand, what she describes (.pdf here) as the standard practice seems reasonable enough: that they follow up on phone tips about big spenders who may have skipped their child support payments, and they compare the list of big lottery winners to their lists of deadbeat dads. No such office wants to be embarrassed by reading in the newspaper what they could have figured out on their own just by being awake and alert.

This case resembles one we reported earlier, when Oklahoma tax officials went to town after reading students’ boasting about the success of their keg party business. Bits don’t come tagged with fine-grained access and usage restrictions. You may be able to stipulate who sees them and who doesn’t, but new situations arise every day and it’s impossible to lay down the rules with mathematical or legal precision limiting who can use them or for what. Human judgment is always going to be involved, and human judgment must be shaped by training and broad principles as well as being limited by formal access restrictions. What’s changed is that there is so much more information and so many more people who have the potential to access it. When it was hard to get at the data, the likelihood of its being misused was much lower.

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