Balancing access to public records with privacy has been one of the biggest issues in current times. Should courts, government agencies and other organizations make records publicly viewable on the Internet? There are many pros and cons to this topic. Privacy activists declare that such publishing of information can be used against a person to his or her detriment.
Viewing and accessing public records might be beneficial for individuals, businesses and employers. Moreover, this information can be used by arms dealers to verify and then sell weapons that might be dangerous.
Not withstanding this, there are other aspects to this issue that does not surface until we look closely into the matter. In the United States, courts and government agencies at all levels of government - local, state, and federal - are increasingly making public records available on web sites. Some jurisdictions are just beginning, while others have done so since the mid-1990s.
There are two ways public records are accessible electronically. Some jurisdictions post them on their government web sites, thereby providing free or low-cost access to records. Government agencies and courts also sell their public files to commercial data compilers and information brokers. They in turn make them available on a fee basis, either via web sites or by special network hookups. Public records available online today can include personal data from passed court cases, property tax files including name, address and telephone numbers of an individual. Sensitive data like medical records can also be included in the record.
Not only do courts provide this data to compilers and online services, but many other government agencies do the same thing. No form that you fill out can be safe today. As all forms at some time or other, land up for processing and entry into a computer server. With Disk space costing virtually nothing today, this is a low cost job that can lead to high profit.
Providing access to public records on the Internet alters the balance between access and privacy that has existed on paper. It is a very simple matter to retrieve valuable personal data today. It is only necessary to locate a data providing service on the Internet, key in the person's name, location or telephone number and the entire history is placed in the open.
Many negative happenings can be triggered off if public records are distributed without any checks or barriers. For example, identity theft. This kind of criminal activity is an opportunistic crime. The majority of criminals obtain the tools of their trade -- Social Security numbers, credit card account numbers, dates of birth, and mother's maiden names -- wherever they can find them, for example, by digging through trash and stealing mail. It will not take long before identity thieves realize they can find such data much more easily online via public records. In fact, an Associated Press article in March 2006 reported that identity thieves accessed the government web site for Hamilton County Ohio to steal Social Security numbers and other personal data of hundreds of Ohio residents. A federal grand jury indicted eight individuals suspected of operating an identity theft crime ring.
Another direct impact of public record access being allowed is less participation. People will be more and more unwilling to participate and help the government by filling out forms as this could make them vulnerable to criminals and other fraudulent attack exposing their privacy.
What can be done to mitigate the negative consequences of making public records containing personal information available on the Internet? Governments are not likely to make the decision to keep such records off the Internet altogether. Indeed, they should not. The public policy reasons for making public records available electronically will help in promoting easier access to government services as well as opening government practices to the public and fostering accountability. By however limiting access to certain data and using automated software to filter out very sensitive information like social security numbers, credit card details and other valuable medical data, a huge step forward would have been taken to restore the balance between providing public records on the Internet and maintaining privacy.
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S. Stammberger is the editor of Public
Record Check. Find out how to search public records online.
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