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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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  • Celebrity Addresses (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ReadParse ( 38517 ) <`john' `at' `'> on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:15AM (#2212719) Homepage
    It was extremely easy for me to think of several celebrities who I thought probably live in New York City.
    For example:
    • Jerry Seinfeld
    • Woody Allen
    • Matthew Broderick

    It doesn't take long to come up with 10 or 15 names.

    A quick Google [] search for their name and the word "birthdate" gave me all I needed to find their home address using this site.

    Some of them may think that this knowledge is not public, and they're the ones for whom information is most easily available, since celebrity birthdates are very easily found.

    This certainly isn't the worst problem with this site. I think private citizens deserve privacy more than celebrities, who did, after all, make the decision to be known publicly, but theirs are the easiest birthdates to find.
  • legal question (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jlemmerer ( 242376 ) <> on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:17AM (#2212721) Homepage
    i know that 1800ussearch [] searches nearly all public databases for information about a certain subject. in most coubntries in Europe thats illegal... hwo do you cope with that in america?
  • by captin nod ( 517564 ) <> on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:25AM (#2212752) Homepage
    On , there is a 5 step process. The last step allows you to post comments in the 'guestbook'. Problem is is that the guestbook in fact sticks the comments instantly right on to the main page of the website! This wouldn't be a problem, but several less-informed people have put up requests to be removed from the database - and included their date of birth, full name, address, Soc. sec. # etc!! Just reload the page every couple of minutes and you can see it happening in real time.. good if you want to do some identity stealing, not so good for the unwitting people who post the comments :/
  • Re:Great Assumption (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mikeage ( 119105 ) <> on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:47AM (#2212825) Homepage
    Because if you lived in New York, and registered to vote (and "opting-out" of voting is not cool), I could get your home address. That might not be something you'd want published. Maybe you don't care... but maybe you do. You should have a right not to have that released so easily, without having to refrain from doing your civic duty of voting. What's next... having to "opt-out" of a drivers license? Social security registration? Having a bank account?
  • by speed_bump ( 104415 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @09:29AM (#2212955)
    It might be helpful to consider what the public actually needs to know in deciding what information should be available in any form (paper or electronic). Various government agencies need to collect personal information about the consituents it serves. This is unavoidable. So the question becomes who needs to have that information and when is having that information available in the public interest.

    I think you can make a case for saying that having deeds and property ownership information available is a good and necessary thing. That does not mean that complete personal information (birthdate, SSN, etc) about the owner needs to be made available to anyone who asks. I think it's time to start considering dividing records into two parts one of which will be provided to the public, and the other (which may be necessary for the agency to do its job) which will not be disclosed to a third party.

    This should not be confounded with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA is generally a good thing. It is the hook that enables us to keep tabs on our government. This needs to be protected. However, it can be limited. It is rarely necessary for a journalist or other investigatory agency to obtain the records of specific individuals to do their jobs. It is almost never necessary to disclose this to a corporation which will typically use it primarily for marketing. Note that there is precedent for this. In most cases state universities have exemptions from FOIA for student records. This principle can be extended.

    This is an old problem made even more problematic by new technology. Gotta love it.
  • by jmichaelg ( 148257 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @09:43AM (#2212996) Journal
    I'm bemused by the large number of "they shouldn't be allowed to publish that" comments. If this was, I'd understand it better.

    I ran for school board a few years back and I needed a list of registered voters in my district. I had to pay the county $100. Not a lot, but it represented 10% of what we had to spend on the campaign. I clearly had a need to know and it rankled me that some bureaucrat had decided that candidates should have to pay $100 for a floppy that took 2 minutes to produce. It boiled down to a tax on challenging the incumbents.

    As a public service, I publish California high school SAT scores. [] Every year, it's like pulling teeth to get the state to relinquish the data. We go round the bush with the same arguments each year and then they finally let me have the data. It's obvious they don't like what I do with the data, but then, is it their right to deny access?

    We operate a tutoring business that uses computers to grade some 500 tests per week. We think what we're doing has a real effect on children's ability to compute and that it's positively correlated with their math test scores. We've needed access to data for years to test that hypothesis but privacy concerns thwarted that access. This year, we finally gained access and sure enough, our hypothesis was confirmed. Those data not only showed us we're on the right track, they also suggested changes in what we're doing. Was the public interest better served by denying access?

    In the end, it comes down to "who decides what you should be allowed to know?" Given their druthers, most agencies would rather they decide, even if their decision is not in the public interest.

  • Re:Public? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cyberdonny ( 46462 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @10:07AM (#2213068)
    > 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. :-)

    Yeah, but I suppose you can get an unlisted number.

    Luxembourgish P&T (national telephone operator, who is now also an ISP) is far worse: even if you had an unlisted number, people could still can find you address on P&T's website! You could opt out of that one too, but you had to know about this page. Moreover, those who opted out would get no personal web hosting space.

  • by mindstrm ( 20013 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @11:27AM (#2213432)
    Well, on one hand, they are Public records... that's pretty clear. Public does mean Public.. why should I have to inconvenience myself by driving 3 counties over to get some files at city hall, when I could just look it up on the internet from anywhere?

    Which brings us to the other hand; the fact that said information is somewhat obscure in practice. You have to go out of your way to get it; it's been that way for a long, long time, so putting these records on the internet WILL change the way information is used.. it IS different.

    I think the real answer is both a) Yes, if it's on the Public record, it should be available to anyone free, online... and...
    b) Given this, we should re-think what should be public record and what shouldn't.

    Remember, those in power can find things out about you a lot faster than you can find things out about them simply because they know where to look. This would even the playingfield.
  • by finitimi ( 126732 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @11:44AM (#2213540)
    The State of Connecticut until recently maintained a registry [] of sex offenders which was accesible online. It was an extension of the "Megan's Law" idea of letting citizens known when a child molester lives next door to you. You could search the database by location and be presented with a list, complete with addresses and photos, of area registered sex offenders.

    This program, understandably, was controversial from the start, with good arguments being made both for and against it. A Federal judge ordered the site shut down earlier this year. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if that decision won't be later overturned.

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. - Paul Tillich, German theologian and historian