Missouri’s Republican Gov. Mike Parson is escalating his conflict with a local newspaper after the outlet revealed a gaping cybersecurity hole in one of the state’s websites.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Josh Renaud recently discovered that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had accidentally exposed tens of thousands of teachers’ social security numbers via a poorly secured webpage. He disclosed the vulnerability to the government, after which Parson proceeded to do what any reasonable public official would do: accuse the journalist of “hacking” the website and threaten legal action.
Many cybersecurity professionals were quick to rush to the reporter’s defense online, noting that simply inspecting publicly available HTML code (which is where the educators’ personal information was allegedly found) does not have anything to do with “hacking.” However, those comments don’t seem to have swayed anyone at Parson’s office.
Now, the governor’s political action committee, Uniting Missouri, has unleashed a bizarre video that doubles down on his claims and dramatizes them for his most MAGA-minded constituents. Entitled “Gov. Parson holds fake news accountable,” the video uses explicit Trump-like language and blatantly attempts to demonize the Post-Dispatch, figuring Parson as some sort of crusader against the corrosive influences of local journalism.
“The latest from the Missouri fake news factory is from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” the video proclaims. It goes on to basically regurgitate the “hacking” claims and insinuate that the newspaper was somehow trying to spread misinformation about the state’s very real data leak.
Not long after the video’s release, Uniting Missouri tweeted: “For years, the liberal media has attacked Republicans. Today, Governor Parson is fighting back, referring a reporter who invaded teachers’ confidential information for prosecution.”
Despite all this, the governor’s office has yet to make clear what it thinks Renaud and the Dispatch actually did—only stating repeatedly that the culprits took steps to “decode” information that wasn’t “freely available.” When reached via phone on Friday, Kelli Jones, Parson’s communication’s director, told Gizmodo that an investigation into the incident is “still in progress” and that “interviews are currently being conducted” by the State Highway Patrol’s Digital Forensics Investigation Unit.
It wasn’t immediately clear how to reach Uniting Missouri, as the website does not provide a contact portal or a press contact. Having watched the PAC’s video, however, I have to say that—even by political advertising’s standards—it is quite ridiculous. You can take a look and judge for yourself.
Perhaps the weirdest, most hilarious thing about the video is that it portrays Parson as some sort of protector of educators’ privacy—even though it’s the newspaper (which the video vilifies) that helped point out the data breach.
Parson has also weirdly complained that it will cost Missouri $50 million to fix the data issues uncovered by the newspaper’s investigation (that money is reportedly being spent on credit monitoring for the staff whose SS numbers were left exposed)—as if it’s the paper’s fault for writing about something that the state screwed up instead of the state’s fault for screwing it up.
Democratic politicians have also argued that the governor is inflating the costs of protecting teachers’ data. “He pulled it straight out of his ass,” state Rep. Peter Merideth recently told an outlet, in regards to Parson’s projections.