Orange County Dropbox lawsuit gets its day in court

Redacted IP addresses raise questions about where government privacy begins in the realm of public records

“Dropbox might be convenient, but it shouldn’t be used to evade the public’s right to know.”

– Andrea Mogensen, attorney for Organize Now




Amount community group Organize Now has spent trying to obtain public records from the Orange County government Dropbox account



Amount that several commissioners and Mayor Teresa Jacobs were individually fined following the 2012 Textgate scandal, in which the board was caught taking marching orders from lobbyists through phones and tablets during a public meeting



Number of Internet “intrusions” the county government claims that it receives daily in attempts to compromise online security

Boxing Day

Just when you thought it was safe to rub Vaseline on your ears and poke your head back into local politics – with all of its circling sharks and political piranhas and spam-flavored viruses – local hell-raising activist group Organize Now stirs things up again. It finally got its (latest) day in court on Nov. 12, continuing what must be the longest public records saga that we can remember.

You remember, too, right? Way back in September 2012, during a debacle that came to be known as Textgate, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners (headed by Mayor Teresa Jacobs) took to the virtual world via portable devices during a public board meeting and allowed the whole county to see how callous and malleable local government can be. Cries for help in understanding how best to fight off the encroaching doom of sick time for the county’s neediest working folk could be heard rattling on touchscreens, especially the mayor’s.

“This is so bizarre. Pls [sic] help me with a written explanation of my position. This is most distressful for me,” Jacobs texted into the wind on that fateful Tuesday.

It was, perhaps, the most defining moment in this particular administration’s palpable incompetence. Neither Jacobs nor her “yes-ma’am” court could see beyond the fallacy of their representative government charade – certainly not over the toupees of lobbying interests and Republican operatives – in order to honor the signatures of more than 50,000 residents in search of a sick-time ordinance. Not even enough to allow it onto the 2012 ballot, so that the public could decide for them. This was the rock-bottom point when we thought that the county seat would likely throw out all of its divisive devices and, having paid $500 apiece in fines for their mistakes, try to make right by the voters. Nope. Your charming electeds just dug deeper.

Via various sources, we caught wind that the county was doing its business “in the cloud,” so to speak, meaning that, as one former county employee told us in confidence, public records requests wouldn’t include cloudy Dropbox files unless they were specifically asked for. But when you don’t know that there’s a Dropbox, it’s kind of hard to ask for Dropbox records. In September, the whole thing blew up, with Organize Now filing another lawsuit and Jacobs claiming complete transparency on local television news programs. You can see anything you want, she said. Have at it, she said.

But that’s not exactly what happened. Thousands of log entries from the county’s Dropbox dealings were eventually released – at a hefty cost of $1,412.78 – and between the redacted Internet Protocol addresses (all of them were erased) and the flat-out deletions, it didn’t seem like the county was terribly interested in revealing whether its floating cloud of position papers and policy directives was being manhandled by outside sources. Privacy! That would be fine, maybe, if it weren’t already so apparent that the county has been taking direction from outside sources all along. Pls!

On Nov. 12, Organize Now’s lawyer, Andrea Mogensen, rather politely addressed the issue in a court of law in front of Orange/Osceola Circuit Judge Robert J. Egan. “So, we can agree that …” was the preface to most of her spoken summations, forcing county expert witness and security go-to guy Peter Miller into visibly unhappy acquiescence. The plaintiff’s expert witness, Kevin Ripa – a seasoned Internet surveillance type – deepened the county’s wound by explaining that IP addresses are like assholes, everybody’s got one. The whole notion that the county was protecting its interests by putting sensitive information on a third-party cloud site – one that does its own encryption, but without any guarantees of protection – was effectively blown out of the water. That didn’t stop the county’s attorney, William “Chip” Turner, or county security guy Miller from overstating the importance of withholding IP addresses from Organize Now, though. After all, the county has been under attack during such important recent events as the Casey Anthony trial, Food Not Bombs homeless feedings and Occupy Orlando. So Dropbox makes perfect sense? It’s only a password away.

Speaking of, Jacobs made a bit of personal news by hiring her own legal representation in the form of attorney Edward Dion from the Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson firm out of Fort Lauderdale. His sole responsibility, it appears, was making it clear to Judge Egan that Jacobs had no part in the redacting of IP addresses – that was all Miller’s fault.

“Since [Jacobs] is not a custodian of the records … we believe she should be dismissed,” he argued.

“At least at one point, the mayor was the custodian,” Mogensen retorted. After all, Jacobs has been saying it was her account all along, created for her mobile convenience. Surely she would have no interest in hiding IP addresses, then?

“We’re not trying to hide the ball,” the county’s attorney Turner said. Those paying attention will note that exactly two years ago (within two weeks, really), county counsel made a similar argument about Textgate: “I’m not trying to obfuscate or hide.”

The judge is expected, as of press time, to make a decision in the matter this week. You will likely find the results online by using your IP address.