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How Public Should Public Records Be? 175

Hobobo writes: "This article on the New York Times talks about whether public records that are available in local government offices should or shouldn't be available online. It also talks about the "practical obscurity" of people checking files in police offices and whatnot, and public records on the internet are "too public," and the privacy and freedom of information issues involved." If you'd like to try it, you can use "Giuliani" and "5/28/44".
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How Public Should Public Records Be?

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  • A real issue (Score:2, Insightful)

    by YIAAL ( 129110 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @07:18AM (#2212673) Homepage
    This is a real issue. I'm amazed what I can find about people on the Web already. Correlating bits of innocent data can give you a surprisingly complete picture.

    There's a big double standard here: the federal judiciary, whose financial records are required to be made public, has consistently refused to make them available on the Internet, or to release them to people who plan to do that. That's no surprise, but it's unfair. Sauce for the goose, and so on.
  • Re:A real issue (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 24, 2001 @07:43AM (#2212681)
    Yes, and the worst part is, the "innocent data" about a person can be very suggestive, yet very misleading at the same time.
  • Great Assumption (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mikeage ( 119105 ) <> on Friday August 24, 2001 @07:51AM (#2212685) Homepage
    There's an assumption being made:
    "Only you, your family, and your closest friends know your birthday"
    I _wish_ I could remember my family members' birthdays (and anniverseries, etc. etc. etc.)!

    But seriously... that's there idea of "security"? That's not security through obscurity, that's security through stupidity!
  • Public? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bogado ( 25959 ) <> on Friday August 24, 2001 @07:56AM (#2212690) Homepage Journal
    If they are realy public, why shouldn't they be on the internet? In fact the site above is indeed an invasion of privacy, but because it is disclosuring the address of people, not because it is disclosiring wheter people are registred voters or not. If the site response were :

    Doe, John is a registred voter.

    instead of

    Doe, john 123 main street republican.

    It would disclosure the information that is public and would not be that intrusive.

    But there are worst cases, the directory of phone of Rio de Janeiro disclosures not only the address but also the map on how to get there. :-)

    you can try : HTTP://, just lick in the "residancial" and search for josé (a fairly common name in Brasil. Click on the little ball on the left of name and voila you have a map to that person's home. :-/

  • by ryanw ( 131814 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:00AM (#2212693)
    I don't know. There is someone at my work place that has been going through a divorce over the past year. She likes having the court records online so she can check it daily to see what is going on and where the paperwork has stopped.

    But then again... I wouldn't have known about her divorce she was going through if her name hadn't popped up in a search that few of us were 'jokingly' putting in people's names into search engines seeing what we could "dig up" ...

    I not only found her divorce .. I found my sister's traffic tickets (where she actually had to goto court) .. things on my brother.. things on other friends .. etc.. All in the comfort of my own home.

    There's something to be said about getting up off your butt and going down to a location to dig up information on someone. When it's all at the tips of EVERYONE's fingertips .. people start pulling information for no reason other than just to see whats out there.

    I think it's good to have records available to everyone .. and maybe even having stuff on the internet is good too .. but I think if records are public .. shouldn't there be a record of who has looked at the 'public records'? Isn't that public infomation too ??

    People should have to get an ID to get the public records .. that way at least there's a small stepping stone to prying through people's information .. and since the information about ME I should know who looked at my information.

    Just a thought ...
  • by pjones ( 10800 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:24AM (#2212747) Homepage
    Robert Ellis Smith of Privacy Journal [] lists what he calls the 6 Pillars of Privacy (interestingly enough Senators that I've heard speak drop the last two and you'll see why):
    1. Notice (you need to know information is being collected)
    2. Choice (you need to know if and how you can opt out or in; for government info this you may not have an option and you should be informed of that as well)
    3. Access (you should be able to access any information collected about you; in government records this is covered by FOIA, but business is not so covered in all cases)
    4. Security (you should know if others are allowed access and in cases of no public access that restriction should be made secure)
    5. Accuracy (you should be able to demand that the information kept about you be accurate; interestingly enough this is one that's been dropped)
    6. Restricted Use (no unathorized secondary use of such data. South Carolina cannot sell its Drivers License database says the Supreme Court, but again businesses are not always so restricted)

    All that said, the public has a long standing and legally well tested right to know (as we journalists call it). Public figure like the Mayor of New York or Janet Reno give up most claims to privacy that might apply to ordinary folks when they run for office. We need to know about their criminal and inventment histories when we vote (for example).

  • by wackysootroom ( 243310 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:36AM (#2212790) Homepage
    And just how 'public' should the public library be? Privacy is not really an issue here since the records are available at most libraries and county municipal facilities. Just what are these people trying to prevent? Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of determination can find these records.

    I really think that this is an issue of power over the internet, not one of privacy .
  • by hillct ( 230132 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:42AM (#2212812) Homepage Journal
    I'm glad to see this issue finally coming to the fore. The legal prescidents mentioned in the article have pretty much set the foundation on this issue already. I have somewhat mixed feelings on this issue, for example, the online availability of detailed public records (including personally identifiable contact information, etc.) has made things like geneology MUCH easier, but the convenient availability of this information to a worldwide audience has a tremendous potential for abuse. In the more specific case, I've never felt my political affiliations should be public record at all (as, they reflect on my political beliefs, which are private) but since they are public record, there is no basis to prevent their distribution as far as I can see.

    Let's assume for the moment that in fact something should be done to limit online access to what have always been public records. There are two possible approaches. Each typee of record could be examined and re-evaluated as to what portion of the record whould be made public (ie: remove the addresses of indeviduals from X record before it is made public) or the laws regarding the disclosure of public records could be ammended to prevent certain types of distribution of the media (ie: no electronic distribution permitted). The first solution, although more precise, would be almost impossible to achieve and would reduce the value of the record as a whole. The second is far more easily achievable, but may be over-reaching in the case of certain completely inocuous record types.

    Peraps the latter alternative could be used where there shall be no electronic distribution of records to those who do not reside in a municipality local to the storage of the records (such thet they could have physical access to the records anyway, without inconvenience), but anyone who requested the records on paper or electronic media, could recieve them for private use - with the afore mentioned provision still in force). This solution has it's own problems, such as it would just server to create an industry that would employ indeviduals local to areas housing highly valued public records, to re-distribute them for a fee in some non-elecronic form, rather than such application fees as the government would otherwise collect.

  • by RobertAG ( 176761 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @09:30AM (#2212958)
    Traditionally, one has always had to make the "trip across town" to the local town/city hall or state/federal building. This has limited access only to those who were somewhat determined to get the information (ie for lawsuits and other conflicts).

    Easier access to this information can be used by spammers, telemarketers, etc. to create mailing lists that bombard us with all kinds of garbage.

    I propose that online access to public information be limited such that it doesn't allow a person to retrieve dozens or hundreds of records continuously. If a person wants to access such information, he or she would be allowed a fixed amount of usage (determined by a browser cookie, a scan of the persons IP address, etc.) per day or week. If that person needs to access or download hundreds of records at once for legitimate reasons such as lawsuits, tax research, title research, then such access can be applied for and granted on a case by case basis.

    This won't stop unscrupulous people from abusing legitimate access for their own needs, but it will provide some tracability and accountability for their actions.

    Public records should remain public. However, the cybernetic tools to search and gather hundreds of records don't have to be. A human brain has always been an excellent, and free, tool to use. It still is.
  • by acceleriter ( 231439 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @09:42AM (#2212993)
    This levels the playing field. So long as there is no special treatment for the rich and/or famous, public records should be public and as easily accessible as possible. Did it make everyone feel better before that only those "in the know" could go look up what we errorneously though were private details about our lives?

    The answer to any concerns that there is too much in the public record is to change the laws so such information is not public record, not to make public records harder for the "little people" to access.

  • Re:A few thoughts (Score:3, Insightful)

    by milo_Gwalthny ( 203233 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @09:47AM (#2213006)
    A company called Lexis/Nexis has entered, AFAIK, all court records into a huge database. Whenever my firm invests in a company we do a Lexis/Nexis search on the executives as part of our due diligence.

    As is usual in these privacy debates, the stable door is open and the horse long gone. The only difference now from 4 years ago is that you had to put up some money to get the info. That means that big companies had access to the data and people didn't. Ever get a credit report on yourself? The first time I did I was astounded how much they knew about me.

    The only privacy is complete privacy. If we don't want this information public, then the government shouldn't collect it (I mean, do they really need your address on file to let you vote?)

    (On a side note, it actually sort of disturbs me now when I do a Google on somebody and don't get *anything*. I almost believe they don't actually exist.)
  • by bwt ( 68845 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @10:06AM (#2213066) Homepage
    I think the concept of "too public" is completely bogus. It is actually WORSE to allow access to public records in crippled ways only. In a nutshell, knowledge is power and a system where data is difficult to get citizens are at a tremendous knowledge power inequity. I support anything that moves power to citizens.

    All privacy by obfuscation does is create fake value-add business models to market public data.

    An example is judicial decisions and legal records. Most circuits are available on the net now, but most district opinions are still offline. Lexis and Westlaw make big bucks by doing nothing other than providing access to public documents. The whole legal industry is dependent on them, which increases legal costs dramatically, reduces predictability of the law, and serves to enforce the guild.

    The credit report situtation is just as bad. You often have to pay to see what's in your own credit report, but it provides no privacy protection against creditors and potential creditors, who are the main groups you want privacy protection from.

    Once policy decides that information should be public, it should be made available in the most accessible way. If the info should be private, the information subject should control all access. The problem is only if we choose to make information public or semi-public that should be private.

    My appraisal district here makes all property values available on the net in a manner that can be searched by name or address. I have looked up all of my neighbors and my coworkers property values. I think that crosses the line, but I would absolutely NOT consider it a solution to make people go in to the property tax office to get these records, though. That would simply serve to limit the knowledge to those who could pay a falsely inflated price to get the information, which would then serve to improve the negotiation position of organizations over citizens.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them WHAT to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. -- Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.