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Greenwich, Conn., the tony Fairfield County enclave that made national headlines trying to keep outsiders off its beaches, is now fighting to prevent cybersurfers from peering down into its backyards. The problem is the fishbowl effect it hopes to shroud was actually created with public funds in the form of a recently completed, multimillion-dollar computer-based mapping system of its real estate, otherwise known as the “richest town in America.” Because the data is all public information, Greenwich faces a new legal battle that could make its 1990s beach access fight seem comparatively easy. Indeed, on a purely technological level, the privacy fight may have been lost already. Satellite and airplane photos, as well as coordinated maps, are freely available online. (One such tool, a Microsoft-run Web site located at terraserver.homeadvisor.msn, offers an eagle-eye view, by address, of Greenwich’s gated communities and ultra-private beaches, as well as towns and cities across the country.) The dispute also serves as a tutorial for other municipalities that would restrict town-owned data from those who would use it for private financial gain. TOOL FOR JEWEL THIEVES? The town’s Geographical Information System, or GIS, has two forms: maps and photos. In map form, it combines highly detailed street maps, utility lines, landmarks and public data right down to details of who owns what, and at what tax valuation. In its alternate photo form, viewers can choose views from so high in the sky that the whole town appears in a single photo. Or they can zoom down so any backyard is recognizable in photo images of impressive detail. In early 2001, self-described “computer guy” and Stamford, Conn., businessman Stephen Whitaker made a sweeping request, under the state Freedom of Information Act, for Greenwich’s collection of GIS data, which the town refused. He’d have to buy individual map photos, it said. In his appeal before the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford last fall, Whitaker faced an array of defenses from the town. Town lawyer Haden P. Gerrish claimed that Greenwich is particularly vulnerable, due to its wealthy populace. Indeed, the FOIC duly noted the town’s concerns that, “as an affluent community in which wealthy diplomats, entertainers, authors and chief executive officers reside, Greenwich is susceptible to jewel thieves and kidnappers, and that the release of overhead views of topography, fences, security measures and escape routes could be helpful to potential criminals.” Furthermore, Greenwich argued, “since the president and vice president of the United States visit the town, release of the requested records, which essentially consist of a ‘footprint’ of the entire town, could impede security measures for those persons.” But the FOIC, in decision #2001-546, ruled last November that Greenwich had cited no valid state or federal exception to the FOI statute, and must give Whitaker the computer data copies he requested. A small exception was made that allows Greenwich to remove any social security numbers or personal medical information, if any should appear in the system. Greenwich has appealed. Pending in New Britain Superior Court, the case’s scheduling is soon to be set, Gerrish said. THE INFORMATION MARKETPLACE In the Connecticut legislature, Rep. Claudia “Dolly” Powers, R-Greenwich, has sponsored House Bill 5014, which would only permit towns to disclose GIS maps to people who own the subject property. Powers said there has been a statewide policy push to encourage towns to upgrade their public records and adopt comprehensive digital databases. West Hartford, Conn., for example, is in the process of creating a GIS system, town officials noted. Before the advent of Sept. 11, she maintained, there may have been too much willingness to assemble public databases. Powers said the detailed information available is a serious concern to the town’s police and fire authorities. In a worst case scenario, overlays showing electric and telephone lines, water sources and residences could be combined to plan a devastating kidnapping — or worse, she noted. Powers noted the recent abduction of multimillionaire hedge fund manager Edward S. Lampert, who later escaped, as the type of crime that is based on planning and strategic access. Greenwich has copyrighted its GIS software, and the town hoped that fact would help it control how and when it must release the data, Powers said. Whitaker, she added, has said from the start that he plans to use the digital data as the basis for other computer products to resell commercially. Mitchell W. Pearlman, the FOIC’s executive director and general counsel, said the shift from paper documents to digital documents has created an economic issue for towns. After gathering town data, he said, municipalities “think they’ve paid a lot of money for their use, and they don’t want somebody coming in and stealing the product of that for some other purpose that may, in fact, harm the marketplace for information. Well,” he reminded, “they’re a government agency, they’re not an information purveyor for money.” Much of the information in the public domain has been gathered by the federal government, which by law does not copyright the data it gathers. The maps and photos used on terraserver, mapquest and other free Internet sites include data from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which creates a prodigious volume of mapping data as part of the U.S. Geological Survey. Private companies also offer extensive mapping and aerial photo collections, noted Pearlman. Under FOI laws, the town is not permitted to charge more for electronic data copies than the basic cost of the staff time to comply with the information request. In Greenwich’s battle with Whitaker, it said he could buy as many paper maps and photos as he wanted, but flatly refused to provide the digital database under any terms. Last summer, The Hartford Courant made legal history, when it successfully sought the Corrections Department’s computer database of criminal records. The FOIC ruled that a statute charging $25 per record superceded FOI law, but in The Hartford Courant v. FOIC, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that FOI law prevails. It required the state to provide the information in computerized form. That wound up costing $3,000 — not the $20 million originally quoted at the $25-per-record rate. Gerrish, the Greenwich town attorney, said creating paper copies of GIS data “is not a big moneymaker, as far as the town goes. We charge a nominal fee — I don’t think it’s a heck of a big revenue source. The thrust of the appeal,” he maintained, “is not to protect a revenue base. Public safety is the area of [most] concern, by far.” Whether or not Greenwich is able to curtail the public use of government-gathered data, the town’s police and fire chiefs have both called for a reduction of “bird’s eye views” of the community now available on the Internet, Powers said. FOI advocates, however, contend that better data for planners, engineers and emergency workers also could save lives. As Pearlman noted, “Information, by itself, is value-neutral. It can be used for evil or good.”

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