Can Public Records Be Too Public?

That is the question that Jason Fry raises in a provocative column in the Wall Street Journal Online. Fry writes that:

Property deeds, marriage and divorce records, court files, motor-vehicle information and tax documents are increasingly being digitized, and contain a wealth of information that few of us would want online: Social Security numbers, birth dates, maiden names and images of our signatures. Local governments have rushed to put those documents online for a decade or so, often without scrubbing them of such information. And that's made them potentially fertile ground for busybodies, stalkers and identity thieves.

I have no doubt that this comes as a shock to many people. But it shouldn't. The records being put online are public. They are available to anyone willing to schlep to the courthouse or county clerk. As Fry notes, "[o]pen records are a longstanding American tradition."

This is not to say that there isn't a real concern here. The easy availability of highly sensitive personal information such as social security numbers is a serious problem. Fry, however, repeatedly denigrates the users of these records, writing that the "Web [is] enabling drive-by voyeurism for the bored or petty -- or identity thieves in the cybercafes of, say, Nigeria or Romania."

But "busybodies, stalkers and identity thieves," aren't the only ones who use this information. All those Google map mashups that use local property and crime data to reveal street by street disparities between property valuations and crime rely on the digitization -- and public availability -- of these records.

Let's also not ignore the existing reality for most citizen journalists who don't have the financial resources to pay for access to the expensive commercial databases large media organizations have been using for years. For them, the digitization and online availability of public records has been a real boon. However we balance the competing interests involved, it's important to keep in mind the need to keep public records open and accessible.

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Other remedies

The article suggested a remedy basically along the lines of what the identity conferences have called for: "The fix won't be simple -- it will require agreement about what personal information should and shouldn't be available, which may or may not be the same as what should and shouldn't be available online."

I can float a couple of other remedies here:
1. Researcher registration
2. Notification of record lookup to targets

Now, I can't say any more about the merits of these, though I'd guess that #1 (coupled with an good identity system!) would discourage some casual stalkers. I think that John Clippinger knows more.

Still, this 1800-word WSJ article was much more informative than the disaster of a column which Tom Friedman wrote yesterday conflating business accountability with the end of privacy.