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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 )
    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
      Yes, and the worst part is, the "innocent data" about a person can be very suggestive, yet very misleading at the same time.
    • Re:A real issue (Score:2, Informative)

      by drsoran ( 979 )
      Hell, people around here now are suprised to find that I can show them detailed information about their houses, purchase price, appraised values, floor layout, etc. This isn't some secret page, it's the county auditor's web site. Is it right to publish such previously obscure information? Who knows.. but everyone I talk to is definitely not comfortable with that being online so easily available. Before I believe you'd at least have to show your face to a public records office and pay a fee to request the information. That'd deter almost 99% of the people who are otherwise going around browsing this stuff.
    • The difference is, if it's on the internet, the information can be found out *anonymously*. If some creepy guy comes into a public office and wants to know all about John Smith, and you find John Smith dead the next week, you may be able to trace that person. There is no such (well, very little) thing online.
    • A dangerous game! Spreading that kind of information is bad... I would not like it if my financial records were put online. No I don't have anything to hide *hum* but maybe others do! Be realistic here people!!
      • they're not putting financial records online, it's only public information.

        i think it's great, it makes it easier for the public to access. as mentioned earlier, you'll find home layouts, property layouts (city auditor), as well as arrest records, warrants, etc.

        what's the big deal if i can take a name/birthday and find your address (if you're a registered voter in NY City) i could just as easily look it up in the phone book without even knowing your birthday. That's not even public information, it's information published by a private company (ma bell). after all, it's just information, doesn't "it want to be free" :)

    • 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.

      This is very true. To give a practical example, I looked up this young man [anywho.com] and this gentleman [anywho.com] and found that they shared the same address! Imagine what inferences someone could draw from that.

      The Internet brings a whole new level of accessibility to public records - the ability to mine data using scripts and correlate it in a huge database adds a lot of value to information that used to be isolated.

      Personally I've spent a year trying to exterminate my personal information from the Net, and I'm far from succeeding.

      • Exterminating your personal information is probably impossible. It's probably better to generate as dense a fog of contradictory and misleading information about yourself as possible.
    • by finitimi ( 126732 )
      The State of Connecticut until recently maintained a registry [state.ct.us] 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.
  • There are safeguards (Score:2, Informative)

    by Quila ( 201335 )

    Most public records laws already have measures in place to safeguard personal privacy. Others, as in the article (I read it!) do need some work to account for personal privacy. A good example is, before records were finally given to APB news on judges' finances, personal information such as address, phone, etc., was redacted.

    Records being available in the Internet is very important. Check out www.freedomforum.org [freedomforum.org] to see how hard it is often to get public records in person, with demands to know why, see ID and attempted arrests (especially for public police records such as who's currently in jail). Internet access would allow people to get this information without fear of intimidation.

    • Records being available in the Internet is very important.

      I agree. Public records are just that - PUBLIC. Lets be realistic people - if someone really wants to know something about you they are going to find out and public records online aren't going to change that. Sure it saves a would be psycho some time, but thats about it. The good thing about these records going online and the CHicken Littel media these days is it'll raise awareness to records that have ALWAYS been public. People need to know what stuff about them is public and what type of opt out programs there are.

      • I don't have a problem with my records being public... But I would like to see a system implemented where, when someone asks to see my records:
        a: The request is logged in the public records
        b: The information can't be requested anonymously
        c: I receive notification of the name of the person requesting my data, and the date they do so.
        After all, if the person accessing my records are not going to cause me harm, they should have no fear of my knowing who they are and what they are doing.
        The benefit of such a system would be to cut down on things like your co-workers looking up dirt on you for fun, because you could do the same in return.
  • Great Assumption (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mikeage ( 119105 ) <[ten.egaekim] [ta] [todhsals]> 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!

    • "Only you, your family, and your closest friends know your birthday"

      Even more so, who else knows your birthday: Stalkers, your ex, everyone at work, ... In many cases, having this information public could be very dangerous...

      • My birthday is September 18th.

        Why is this dangerous?
        • Re:Great Assumption (Score:2, Interesting)

          by mikeage ( 119105 )
          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?
          • How about if you lived in New York and had a telephone? Then anyone could find out where you lived.

            I hope sensitivity to ever-decreasing privacy will cause people to recognize charging for an unlisted number as the blackmail that it is. Imagine if every entity that collected personal information about charged you to keep it secret.

  • Public? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bogado ( 25959 ) <bogadoNO@SPAMbogado.net> 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://www.telelista.com.br/, 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. :-/

    • Re:Public? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cyberdonny ( 46462 )
      > 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.

    • 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.

      One big reason public records are public is so they can be checked for accuracy, allowing errors and fraud to be detected and corrected. This is especially true in the case of voter registration.

      Political machines have historically created large numbers of fake votes, and used these to keep themselves in power far beyond the point where the actual population would have voted them out.

      Once this was done by techniques such as "keeping alive" a voter registration after the actual voter had died, an abuse so prevalent that "the graveyard vote" became a term of political discourse. This practice continues to this day. (Our next-door neighbor has been trying for years to deregister her mother - who died a while back. The clerk refuses, because she's still voting.)

      But more recent changes to election laws - especially in California - have led to enormous abuse.

      "Motor-Voter" registration, with stacks of mail-in forms in every public office, allows the creation of paper voters in wholesale lots.

      At-poll-site registration-and-vote allows vanloads of "instant voters" to move from poll site to poll site, registering and voting multiply.

      No-reason absentee ballot laws allow paper voters to vote - first time and every time - by mail, never showing a face to a poll watcher. (One address in Berkeley was recently noticed to have several THOUSAND "residents" voting absentee.)

      Non-citizens are allowed - and encouraged - to vote. A poll-watcher may not ask for proof of citizenship because this is allegedly "racist" and "intimidating".

      Any fraud at all can swing a close election. This sort of massive fraud can swing even non-close ones. Without such fraud would the last presidential election have been a squeaker? Would the houses of congress be closely divided and split between parties? Would the Hunter's Point park have been turned into shopping malls and condos and millions in bond money spent (to be repaid from taxes) on a stadium that was never built?

      Would millions of potential voters be staying home (making the fraud still easier) because they believe their votes don't count?

      Would YOUR vote make a differenc?

      Changing the law starts with showing there's a problem with the existing law. Showing there's a problem requires detecting it. Detecting it requires documenting large numbers of fake voters. Documenting fake voters requires access to the names and addresses of registered voters.

      So hiding the addresses of registered voters - in bulk on the internet - promotes voter fraud and political machines. Yet the privacy risk comes from the availability of the address AT ALL - and a stalker, crook, or information seller can still get the addresses he wants.

      So keeping addresses off the internet is the worst of both worlds, leaving the crooks and privacy-invaders with access and the general population in the dark.

    • One problem with making this data accessible via the Internet is that it is now available to non-citizens as well. I'm all for British citizens (for example) having free access to certain information about their own judges, elected officials, gov't functionaries, and next-door neighbors. I'm not sure it's appropriate for French citizens to have the same level of access - if any at all.

      I mean, the Americans gave the French free access to stuff, and now they've taken over Jerry Lewis!

      Anyhow, you could either implement regional restrictions on Internet access (a bad thing), or you could keep the records offline and require some "proof of citizenship"-style validation before releasing the info to qualified parties.
  • 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 ...
    • We're all afraid of what can happen now that (previously not-so-)public records are easy to access. I don't want people that I meet to be able to discover my entire life's history. Think about the impact this might have on getting a job. "Sorry, you're a great candidate, but we don't want to hire you because we did a public records search and found that you have 17 unpaid Boston parking tickets."

      Then again... U.S. society is gradually becoming less and less formal. Many people don't wear suits to work. Many issues which used to be taboo (sex, divorce, drugs) are more openly discussed. But, we're still quick to criticize people who have faults. Could making public information more readily available finally relax this high-view stereotype that we have? We're already progressing in that direction. Clinton wasn't stoned after his affair was publicized. Bush was elected president even though he had a serious drinking problem when he was young.

      With public records being easily accessible, we're going to have to get used to everyone having a "history." But, society does change with time. This is just another transition that society needs to go through. Sci-fi writers (e.g. Spielberg/Kubrik in A.I.) try to make us believe that people are static---they don't change with technology. But, they do. Aren't cars, planes and *nuclear missles* a bit more society-altering than a robotic boy? In some ways, this change will be great. It will allow us to discover when people have a seriously dangerous history (e.g. mass murder, millions of $$$ in credit card fraud, etc.). It will also bring our society to accepting things that normal people do (e.g. drinking in college, smoking pot, not paying parking tickets, etc.). We're all human. We make mistakes sometimes. We also occasionally just like to enjoy life and not think too much the future consequences of our actions.

      Anyway, making public records easy-to-access may seem like a terrible thing. But, they are public records. If someone *really* wanted to know your birthday & address, they would have been able to find it. Making them easily accessible helps those who don't have the time to search through all of the records. And, it will (hopefully) inject some much needed humanity into our society.

      • But, society does change with time. This is just another transition that society needs to go through. Sci-fi writers (e.g. Spielberg/Kubrik in A.I.) try to make us believe that people are static---they don't change with technology. But, they do.

        There's a really interesting Sci-Fi book dealing with just this idea -- The Light of Other Days by AC Clark & Stephen Baxter. The premise is someone developing a stable wormhole large enough to fit a tiny camera through. The camera can be pointed anywhere and is too small for the people on the other side to see. Once the wormcam becomes cheap enough for the public, deeply-held notions of privacy (and later, memory) begin to dissolve. Pretty good reading. Check it out.

    • I have to draw a correlation here. Bare with me. I will use security softare as an example, but any softare will do.

      Many who read slashdot, inluding me, would agree that open source security software like firewalls and IDS is a good idea. It allows coders to dig through and find the flaws as an evolutionary process. The software has a great responsibility of protecting out network and thus should be open to criticism of failure and flaws. By exposing those flaws, the software is made stronger in every successive version. The software is only held accountable by those that use it. If they feel that it is not good enough, they can modify the code to improve it, they can just wallow in self pity and do nothing, or they can stop using it alltogether and choose a different software package.

      Covering the flaws in software with laws and government regulation only slows the process of making better software. Closed source software only gives two of the three options listed above. If you don't like the software, you can wallow in self pity and do nothing, or you can stop using it alltogether and choose a different software package. The maker of the software package in this case is held accountable to two groups this time, but the groups are linked financially: the shareholders and the users of the software. If the users revolt, then the shareholders will also revolt. If the company is private (no public stock) then the users are alone.

      By the logic above, an individual should by that logic want to divulge all their information to others for the purpose of making themselves better individuals. Open the source and let some people poke around and give advice. The problem is that if we fail, we are only accountable to those that depend on us. If we have great responsibility (like protecting the network) then we should be open to some poking around through the code to make things better. If we are only responsible for ourselves then we have every right to deny people access to our code. If the society in which we live demands access to our code as a condition of membership, then we choose to either give the code or leave the society.
  • Back in college I worked for this guy as a PC tech. He had this great idea of building a system which would link all the property to a database that would in turn allow you then to either click on the map and pull up all the records for the parcel of land or type in a name and see all the property that person owned.
    Nifty idea back in it's time.
    I know that there are companies that go to each court house and scan in all the documents posted in the last year and they sell the data to other companies that use the data to market products or back to cities as an effective storage / archive system. these same companies do the same thing for the states, too.
    I think it should be a careful balance between my right to some privacy and the public right to know. Sooner or later all the records will be stored in a digital format. And sooner or later that information will find its way to the net.
    Maybe limit the number of times a person can access the records per day? Or maybe give the database office hours (only accessible from 9 to 5)?
    Maybe its time for us technically inclined to run for office and put into effect some good ideas?
    • This has been implemented in our county, http://www.leeclerk.org
    • 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.)
  • Replace the 'www' in the address with 'archive' and voila

    http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/24/nyregion/24VOTE. html [nytimes.com]
    http://archive.nytimes.com/2001/08/24/nyregion/24V OTE.html [nytimes.com] (watch the spaces if you copy/paste)

  • "We're equating ease of access with privacy, and to me they're two different animals. Either a record is private or it's not."

    While I am irked that they are making it too easy to get at some of this personal data, the guy has an interesting point. The real problem here isn't online accessibility -- it's accessibility by anyone. The "practical obscurity" notion has some merit, but IMHO, I am rather miffed to find out that some of this information is available to any bozo who strolls down to a county records office with a few crumbs of data about me to begin with.

    What makes us think it's a good idea to allow access to things like the names of crime victims anyway? Anybody who throws my voter registration info in a database with nothing but my name and birthdate to protect it is getting sued. This kind of thing should be opt-in only!

  • Sure being public means that anyone in the public has a right to view these things, but that's not to say that they need not be accountable for it.. In other words, I don't want random people looking at my shit. And if people do look at my shit, I want to be able to get a list of names, so I can look at their shit.. This can be easily avoided on the net, just create an account and look... I don't have anything to hide, but I value my privacy...
    • We all value our privacy. However, most of this information is not private. I'm sorry that most of you didn't realize that until now, but that's the Reality.

      Now, if you don't like it, tell your Mayor/Councilman/StateRep/Governor/Congressman/Sen ator/President. Tell your local newspaper. Tell the local TV station. This story has sensationalism potential they'd eat up.

  • Since when is it news that you can get property records online?

    For my state (Ohio), and county (Franklin), I can get full property record information, including sale price, all inspection history, even the layout by knowing just the address. This service has been available for years now and is available for countless other counties in Ohio and the same in many other states.

    The only thing you can't do right now is get someones criminal record (although it is available for anyone about anyone for a fee). In addition, there are many states which have been putting court transcripts online for awhile now. So this isn't news -- it's just the privacy people drumming up more emotion.

    For the most part I don't think people should worry the slightest. Actual stalkers who want someone's information and are determined to actually do *something* don't care about convience. They'll go dig through a file cabnet for their x-wife's name and address just as they would look it up online. It saves them some work, but that wasn't their goal in the first place.

    In addition, most important people and celebrities have known addresses. They show their homes off on TV and magazines. So I doubt they care about that.

    That article presents a pretty pathetic argument. These are public records, and there are all kinds of positive uses. Public records will always be abused, and putting them on the Internet isn't going to stop nor increase that abuse (due to the nature and type of people who do such abuse).
  • Ooops! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Pete (big-pete) ( 253496 ) <peter_endean@hotmail.com> on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:13AM (#2212714)

    I just went to the site (http://www.registeredtovoteornot.com [registered...eornot.com]) and in the section entitled "What others are saying:" was the following...

    JANE B, on 60 STREET says, "Please remove my name (Jane S. Brody, Woodside, dob 7/4/47) from your site IMMEDIATELY (i.e., this morning, Friday, August 24). AND PLEASE DO NOT POST MY COMMENTS ON YOUR SITE. Your site, for all your good intentions, is a serious invation of privacy (for one thing, if you have a person's birthday but are not sure of the year, you can now find out the year; also you can now determine anybody's party affiliation). You would be well advised to shut your site down, at least for several days, and redesign it. By the way, why did you choose a person's birthday as the identifier? Would social security number be safer? No one that I know of (besides myself, my bank, my employer, etc.) has that information. Thank you for your immediate attention to this matter."

    I think that demonstrates exactly how much they respect the wishes of the citizens of NY...

    -- Pete.

    • "YOU LOSE! Have fun at the EFF"

      strange.. it shows this message and throws me to, you guessed it, to www.eff.org

      It didn't say what did I lose or did they found the thing I've lost or anything. Oh well, EFF is a good site, it's nice they direct people there. More eyes on the real issues of todays world.

  • This follows the same lines as "security through obscurity"

    Every one assumed they had privacy through "practical obscurity" meaning that before the internet information had to be obtained by actually visiting or calling a government agency.

    With the internet the amount of personal data that you can obtain on a person in a relatively short period of time, while sitting at home is quite disturbing.

    The real question is "Should the goverenment publish personal information to the net, but still make it available if you show up in person?"

    0.02 cents
  • As a Brit, I'm a little puzzled by the fact that the political preference of most people in New York seems to be public information. I typed in Smith and a random date, and got back several matches, most of which had their affiliation. Where does this information come from?
  • Celebrity Addresses (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ReadParse ( 38517 ) <john@fun[ ]ow.com ['nyc' in gap]> 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 [google.com] 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.
    • Really! This takes my stalking skills to the next level. You can put up a bio on IMDB for just about anyone who's ever been on TV.

      Donald Trump, Lauren Hutton, Spike Lee... the list goes on.

      It's naive to think this info would have been kept private. Another neat site for the people who can't mind their own business is www.domania.com. Shows how much people paid for their house and assesed value so you report you neighbors to the tax collector.

      I've also heard great things about resourse for Nexxus/Lexxus (sp?) but I've never used it. Any one have info on what kind of personal info you can get from it?

    • Yea but can you beleive the addresses are to their home address? Most likely, however I did a quick search on Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker don't have the same address? :)

  • legal question (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jlemmerer ( 242376 )
    i know that 1800ussearch [1800ussearch.com] 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 pjones ( 10800 ) on Friday August 24, 2001 @08:24AM (#2212747) Homepage
    Robert Ellis Smith of Privacy Journal [privacyjournal.net] 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).

  • On http://www.registeredtovoteornot.com , 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 :/
  • Same argument stands -- the "bad guy" will find it anyway... The easier the access, the higher the awareness -- no longer will one's unwillingness to, say, use the Social Security Number as the student ID number (UMass Boston [umb.edu]'s practice, for example), look freakish...

    Then perhaps, the politicians will realize something too and some of those records will not be public anymore...

  • by wiredog ( 43288 )
    Get over it.
  • I registered to vote in an other county in NY more than 6 months ago (which is supposed to delete my NYC registration) but my record still appears on the site, so it is at least a few months behind or they are slow deleting re-registered voters.
  • I moved out of NYC years ago, (and am a registered voter in my new district near Rochester) and yet my name is STILL on file there! I'd like a form to fill out that says "I moved away, please take me off not just your site, but the voter rolls as well." Maybe then my parents will stop getting Jury Duty notices in my name....
    • It's very hard to "un-register" yourself to vote, in my experience. All these organizations are gung-ho about getting you to register, but nobody ever explains how to change your registration. I suppose it's supposed to be automatic: when you register in one place, your registration elsewhere gets cancelled. Sometimes it works (within two weeks of my moving out of Arizona, they'd notified me at my new address that they'd cancelled my registration), and sometimes it doesn't (New York still considered me registered at my parents' home after I hadn't been living there for seven years and had been registered elsewhere for two.)

      But that's the general problem of public databases, it seems: it's easy to get data into them, but not to get it out.

  • 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.

  • Ya, 'too public' thats almost as funny as the phrase 'too much freedom'

    question authority....
  • The NYT article talks about concern about making property sale prices conveniently available, but those are already conveniently available on the web. My preferred site for that is domania.com [domania.com] which has good data for lots of states across the country. There isn't data for states that don't disclose sale prices, and some areas are not well-covered, but in general, it has reasonably useful data. Try a few friends who bought places relatively recently- interesting. In some areas, it goes back to sales from 1987 onwards.
  • The idea of "practical obscurity" is that you can find out individual records that you're looking for, but you can't just go and get all of the records. This effectively prevents data mining while allowing access to direct information of public record.

    The real-world implementation is that you can go and ask for a record, and get a copy of it. But you have to ask for the record you want; you can't just say, "give me all the records you have". I'd be fine with a site that made public records available online in such a way as to prevent someone from sending it all the names from the phone book or something.
  • Our town (Merrimack, NH) got a TON of flack for having the grand list online. Basically, if you knew someone's name or address you could get a picture of their house and property.

    Mucho complaining, and they shut down the website. You can still go down to the town hall and get all this info though.
    Is that better? I don't know.

  • by egburr ( 141740 )
    One public records that should be posted online are the laws we live under.

    As a story here on /. mentioned a while back (the search tool is down at the moment, or I'd put a link to it), many laws a copyright by the people / organizations who submitted them. Once it becomes a law, copyright over that text should be void, and it should be publishable by anyone, and it should be put on the web for easy access.

    • As far as the U.S. is concerned, the laws are already available online. See the Public Laws page [gpo.gov]. For state laws, I suggest finding the homepage of your legislature (on, say, Google). They'll probably have a link to the online database if it exists. For example: Michigan's Compiled Laws [michiganlegislature.org].

      I vaugely remember the copyright issue you mentioned. I doubt copyright issues will prevent the government from publishing it's own laws. At least, I really hope that's the case.

  • This is nothing. I work for a company that provides computer services and software for county records offices, which is where things like deeds and mortgages are registered with the county. Land owner's signatures, and sometimes even social security numbers are public information, and have been for quite some time. Anyone can go into the county office, and for a couple of bucks walk out with a copy of someone's mortgage.

    My current job, or a major part of this is to put this information on the internet. There are still issues being worked out like who pays for the systems...the users or the county, and other minor problems, but in many counties the information will soon be available free over the internet. What's scary is it is a piece of cake for someone to grab person's name, usually address, signature, and social-sec-# all in a one stop shopping experience.

    And the NYT is having a stink over names linked to addresses? We have not made any waves yet, but our core customer base are commercial searches, who if don't get the info over the internet will just drive to the county anyway.

    I'll be interested to read the discussion following this article.

  • If you visit the website [registered...eornot.com] now, you might notice that you get redirected to the EFF [eff.org]. Apparently when you post comments, it doesn't check what you type in. A few lines of javascript later (hehe), and the site looks like it's h4x0r3d.

    Great job e-ThePeople [e-thepeople.com]!
    Great job.
  • I try going to
    http://www.registeredtovoteornot.com [registered...eornot.com]
    and I get a javascript alert saying:

    "You Loose! Have fun at the EFF"

    And then it redirects to the EFF homepage.

    I guess someone's feelings are hurt.
  • The site is really dumb. They allow users to post anything, so some brilliant guy went in and posted a javascript that redirects you to eff.org. :)

    His script says:
    WILLIAM S, on ROCKAWAY PARKWAY says, "(SCRIPT)alert("YOU LOSE! Have fun at the EFF"); location.href="http://www.eff.org/";(/SCRIPT)"

    I just disabled javascript to read the site... To fix it, I guess 3 people need to add comments to clear that out
  • I do not think that, when they set the rules for publicc access to public records, they knew the internet was coming.

    For example, Foreigners able to access our citizens public records just by browsing to their county's public records page.

    I live in Volusia County, FL (where all the shark attacks are happening) ANYONE can browse to http://www.clerk.org and put my name in and find out all kind of information about me from my last speeding ticket to the deed on my house. My social security number is included on some of these documents and available for the WORLD to see.

    Also, City Officials seem to have some pull on the online database - just look up records to the clerk herself - Diane Matousek - You will find almost all of the documents on her many property purchases to be "missing".

    Sure, it says it's a crime to misuse the information... but since when do criminals follow the laws?

  • May 28 1944 Birthdays

    Rudolph Giuliani (politician and former Mayor of New York City)

  • As a State government webmaster, I've been expressly asked NOT to publish information that one of our departments has...

    How to obtain a permit for explosives.

    Can a person obtain that information by calling us on the phone? yes. But by making the information hard enough to obtain, you're hopefully reducing the number of people you don't want to have that kind of power.

    I've been a 'victim' of identity theft. An analysis of _that_ occurance determined that all the other person had was my name and SSN. They could get that if they worked for my Doctor, Life insurance Company, Workplace, Bank, or a miriad of other places that have FullName and SSN as fields in a database.
    Most likely it did not stem from my internet usage.
    I don't know what the solution is, but I can tell you it's not an 'internet only' phenomena.

  • When I went to registeredtovoteornot.com (at 09:20 EST) it popped up a dialog box that read "This site has been slashdotted. Please move on", clicking "OK" redirected back here.
  • 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 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.
    • 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.

      Won't work. Someone only has to get access to all the records once, and can quite legally republish them, since they're public records. Either it's public or it's not--we've too long relied on "public but obscure," which has been no protection at all from those "in the know."

    • Hey,

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

      Wouldn't it be easier to have a government-run list of telephone numbers, and to say 'These people will not recieve telemarketing calls'?? You could then instill a fine of, say, $5,000 for every marketing call to a number on the list.

      I mean, many people already have thier details on record. That's how all the postal spam you get has your name and address on it. Instead of making public records hard to get, why not simply offer a marketing opt-out procedure?

  • 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.

    • If something is legitimately part of the public record, then it should be as easy to access as possible.

      If easy access pushes questions as to whether or not such-and-such is legitimately part of the public record, so much the better -- these questions need to be raised, or the default answer becomes whatever the bureaucrats who operate the system want it to be.

  • 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 youdontneedtoknowthat.com, 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. [greenes.com] 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.

    • 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?

      while I do think that is fair use of government data, I don't think many people would want their math test scores available to the public on the internet

      making records available behind the counter is different to sticking up posters in the street...

      the analogy may not be totally accurate, but I don't see why there can't be a middle ground

    • Just because I'm registered to vote doesn't mean I need everyone and their mother to know where I live.

      Just because I'm registered to vote doesn't mean I want CANDIDATES, such as yourself, contacting me at random.

      These people also happen to be morons. They don't understand that a birthdate is not a secretive piece of information ("your last name and birthdate should be known only by family and close friends"). What the fuck? Any idiot can know your birthday.

      In short, such information can certainly be useful, but it ought to be better protected and I ought to be able to say "Take my information out of there."
    • I agree that in this case candidates should have free access to the addresses of relevent registered voters, but is it necessary to also have the names rather than just the addresses? This also relates to the website where one can find out if someone is a registered voter. The address is unnecessary information that can be abused. The question is simply is Jane Doe a registered voter, not where does Jane Doe live. Also I think that access to the addresses of registered voters should be restricted to those who have a civic interest in having that information. This would prevent the potential for mass marketing campaigns based on address lists of registered voters.
  • Along with the JavaScript exploit someone else mentioned, I found these choice comments from other site "users":

    What others are saying:

    TIM R, on WEST 15 STREET says, "Susan and I love your site.
    Thanks for giving out our home address!"

    JERRY S, on CENTRAL PARK WEST says, "Hi Jerry Seinfeld
    here. I live at 211 Central Pk. West and was born 4/29/54 I'm a
    stand-up comic, but I don't think this site is very funny! Now
    everyone knows I'm a registered democrat! "

    WILLIAM D, on GREENWICH STREET says, "Please remove
    my data from your database!"

    Other issues aside, with quality control like this, I wonder how much of this information is accurate.

  • Currently I'm involved with a system proposal for a local civil court system. The records of a civil case are public, and the court clerk's office will allow anyone to walk off the street and read the contents of any filed case. But their plan for a web-based database of case information dictates that accessing the data via the web will cost money. Their primary justification for this plan is that they can't justify the increase in budget necessary to accomodate bandwidth/maintenance charges. They also argue that making the information available via the Internet is not mandated by state law, so the public does not have the right to access the information via the web. It would only be a privilege of those who pay for it.

    I'm not sure how I feel about it. I guess that they court clerk's office doesn't have to do anything that isn't in the law, so, in my opinion, the law should be changed to provide such a mandate (and, consequently, state funds for providing such access). I can live with part of my tax dollars going to make this information available on the web.

  • If it's public, put it on the web. The means of distribution should not be confused with the security level of the document. If it's public, put it on the web, otherwise, don't. I think it's pretty underhanded to call something public and then not provide a reasonable and convenient means for public viewing.
  • 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.
  • It is a necessity for the public that these records remain public. These records have been public in the United States for 200 years. The only difference was ease of access. Years ago, when a high school student, I worked for my local auditors office and I had floor plans to every building in the county available to me. This access must remain open.
  • I find it ironic that anyone with an Internet connection can anonymously find out where I live, my telephone number, the size of my house and how much I paid for it, whether or not I received a speeding ticket, etc. but I can't read the NY Times article without getting a ^@$#*!* username and password. (OK, you can register a fake name, but that's more than what you have to do to check up on me.)

    Public information should be public, but I don't think completely unfettered access is necessarily good either. On the other hand, if specific checks and balances are put in place to protect those who have information in public databases, they can be used as roadblocks by those who have something to hide. I have no idea how you strike a balance between the two. Perhaps the traditional method of going down to the courthouse is not too far off the mark.


  • 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.
  • Our cities' public libraries departments reference desks have flouted
    state and local FOI freedom of information principles when it involves their very own
    departmental curatorial reports on collections development and the related cities consultants reports on our cities public libraries.

    Boston Public Library denies it, yet has flouted state FOI principles and reference desk principles.

    Guide to Problematical Library Use
    GuideToProblematicalLibraryUse.WebLogs.com/stories [slashdot.org]
    http://saklad.org [saklad.org]
  • Hey,

    Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about. I live in the United Kingdom, and we have had something similar to this for a while, and it has caused no real problems.

    Voters' registration records are publically availiable. Also, people who don't ask to be ex-directory have thier phone numbers listed in thier regional phone book.

    Anyway, a company called I-CD Publishing makes the UK Info Disk [192.com]. They got all the (public) phone books, and all the (public) voter's records, and correlated the two, producing a range of CDs, and I gather they offer online searches as well. Linited versions of these CDs (i.e. only 15 records returned per search) were made availiable on the front of several computer magazines and the like.

    I have one of these CDs; all it does is make accessing publicly availiable information easy. If I want a phone number for someone living a long way away, I can look them up on the CD, assuming I know the area in which they live, and thier second name, and optionally thier first initial. Then I will get returned thier address, and telephone number (assuming they are not ex-directory).

    This isn't a terribly abusable resource. Nobody is harassed by EVIL TELEPHONE MARKETING COMPANIES, because you can ask to be put on a global British Telecom do not call list, and then telemarketers do not call you. nobody is ATTACKED BY EVIL STALKERS because there isn't much stalking over here. If you get stalked, you call the police, and the person in question is arrested. There's no EVIL IDENTY THEFT because there isn't enough information availaibe to perform identy theft, and banks tend to like solid proof of your identity before they will give you money.

    So, what's my point? Having some information publically availiable online, i.e. name / address / telephone number, does not instantly make your society degrade into anarchy. It is, however, a useful reference tool for legimate uses.

    Don't get too paranoid. Anyone who has the time to search for your personal details out of the millions of other people in the country likely has enough free time to wander down to the county records office and ask for the relevent records.

  • 1. Any record that you could normally see, or have the "right" to see, is made public via the Internet.
    2. Anyone can go look at any of these records.
    3. Access to the records requires a validated identity (which means a login and password).
    4. To get a validated login, you must show up at a public place, prove your identity, and a smart card (or similar) will be issued to you.
    5. You get a report sent to you of who looked at your records, and when.

    If people know who's looking at their records, it would ease a lot of fears. It would also prevent abuse of the records (like marketers). People would then realize that their records aren't being looked at, or would be horrified at how often the information is requested.

    The main thing here is: the information is public, but there is no right of anonymity when reviewing those records.
  • between private entities collecting information from and about you and the government collecting information therefrom: the Government gets to TELL you what it wants to collect, and you have no choice but to secede from the Union, or accede to the invasion of privacy.

    One example is the collection of pet information. The government, for reasons of animal control and public good, requires that you register with it the details of your pet's vaccinations. In Florida, those documents are registered with the County and thus become public records. This information includes, by statute, your name, address, telephone number where pet resides(whether or not unlisted), veterinarian, address and number, pet, name, breed, age, date of last vaccination, type of medication given.

    This information has been used to obtain lists of veterinary practice customers, but also to obtain telephone numbers of individuals at home for scamming (complete with great human engineering information like, "How is fluffy?").

    The point here is that Florida's public records act didn't permit privacy of such information -- the government took it as a condition of having the pet. It took three years of litigation and an act of the legislature to put a stop to these abuses.

    I would really prefer that the State not be obliged or even permitted to make .gif photographs of me available along with drivers license information on the net without my consent.

    It is one thing to hold me accountable for maintaining my privacy by not disclosing information I hold dear, or only to do so discriminately. It is another thing when the government obtains, collects or forceably extracts that information.

    Accordingly, public information ought to be more restricted in how it is made available.
  • that access to publicly available personal information be allowed, as long as those seeking the information also identify themselves and go on record as having looked at it.

I came, I saw, I deleted all your files.