Aldermen adopt new cyber policy

Published 9:23 am Thursday, September 22, 2016

A new ordinance allowing the city to monitor usage and internet traffic of city-owned devices was passed into law at the Brookhaven Board of Alderman meeting this week.

According to the ordinance, all data composed, transmitted or received through city communication systems are official records, subject to disclosure to law enforcement officers and other third parties.

“We have complete access to the computers,” city attorney Joe Fernald said at the meeting Tuesday. “We can pull them out of the building and have someone look at all the messages. We own them.”

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According to the ordinance, employees should “always ensure that the business information contained in internet email messages and other transmissions are accurate, appropriate, ethical and lawful.”

The ordinance lists several examples of prohibited activity, including sending discriminatory or harassing messages, violating patent or copyright law, and viewing or exchanging pornography.

Using the internet for political or religious activities, posting personal views as if representing the city or posting messages which could damage the city’s reputation is also prohibited under the ordinance.

City employees who violate the ordinance could be held personally liable and will see disciplinary action which could include termination of employment.

While the ordinance establishes that the data on city-owned computers is public record and subject to information requests, it does not address concerns related to aldermen conducting city business on private devices or how to archive city-related emails and text messages.

“We’re still waiting on the Department of Archives on guidelines on how to do this,” Fernald said at the meeting. “They have not issued guidelines because they don’t know how to do it.”

The Daily Leader requested public emails of Brookhaven and Lincoln County officials in March as part of Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort to promote dialog on open government.

Fernald said that because city officials often used personal devices and email accounts for city business, he was required to look through personal communication in an effort to retrieve public emails. Fernald said that work cost the city about $4,000.

One solution might be to issue city-owned cellphones to aldermen, but Fernald said that would not necessarily preclude him from having to search personal devices.

“It’s a discovery request just like it would be under the rules of evidence,” he said. “So it’s complicated.”

Fernald said he would have to go through personal phones or accounts owned by aldermen if they were referenced in other official city communication.

However, Fernald said if aldermen were issued city phones and they only used those for city business, it would make public requests much easier.

“Then all I’d have to do is print off everything from the stated period of time and purpose,” he said.

Until these issues are addressed, Fernald advised the board to be extremely careful about what they said through email and text messaging.

“Don’t make an offhanded comment about a personality or something,” he said. “It will be reviewed by a disinterested third party with perfect hindsight who really doesn’t care how things turn out.”