When People's Privacy Was At Risk, Portland Journalists Taught Local Officials A Lesson In Its Importance

It was a successful stunt.

15 years ago, a local newspaper in Oregon had a clever and daring response to what seemed like an absurd law.

It reportedly all started when Portland Police Department swiped the trash of a fellow officer without permission or a search warrant, and subsequently charged her with drug crimes. Their actions, to the dismay of some, held up in court.


In response, the Willamette Week, a local paper in Portland, went and sifted through the trash of three public officials supporting the law — District Attorney Mike Schrunk, Police Chief Mark Kroeker and Mayor Vera Katz — and then presented each person with their findings. Two of the three were so appalled by the invasion of privacy that they ended interviews prematurely and issued public statements. Their horrified reactions seemed to emphasize critics' arguments that the law crossed a line.

Despite being 15 years old, the story was resurfaced on Twitter this week when several high profile journalists began spreading around clips of the article (the article itself had recently been updated). The journalists — many of whom are privacy and surveillance experts — noted the way a person's perspective about privacy issues changes when their own privacy is invaded. 

"That's the key lesson of this Portland story," Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists responsible for uncovering mass surveillance by the NSA, wrote on Twitter. "So often, political officials defend surveillance - until they become targets. I remember Jane Harman defending NSA- until she learned she was spied on: then sounded like Snowden."

Recently, members of Congress have been ringing alarms over how and why members of President Donald Trump's campaign were spied on or wiretapped in 2016. Even some liberal pundits have argued that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) yields too much power and can too easily put together a warrant to listen to people's conversations. 

In the instance of the Portland story, the officials whose trash the Willamette Week sifted through did not publicly change their stances, but their reactions to the invasion of privacy still speak volumes.

"This is an outrageous stunt," Barton Gellman, a privacy expert, wrote on Twitter after the Week's article went viral. "I approve. Portland DA, police chief, mayor are right, legally: our broken 4th Amd doctrine claims we have no reasonable expectation of privacy for our trash."

While it may qualify as an absurd stunt, the reporters' story did demonstrate that privacy is a priority — especially when it's your own.

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Gunter Nezhoda

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