WSJ: When Public Records Are Too Public

Jason Fry, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, writes about the increasing lack of “security via obscurity” as more and more public records become searchable online. While this is old news for many of us, it’s nice to see the WSJ presenting these privacy concerns to its audience. Some highlights:

But then there’s another set of personal details that have made their way online, and these documents are much more worrisome. 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.

…The records being put online are public, and available – sensitive information and all — to anyone who goes down to the courthouse or county seat. And many of them have already been compiled and digitized by data warehouses, who often make them available to marketers and real-estate professionals. Open records are a longstanding American tradition; so too is a hold-your-nose acceptance that commercial entities will try to make a profit by exploiting that openness.

But at the same time, it’s too simplistic to say that just because records are available by going to a government building and talking to a clerk, we shouldn’t worry that they’re now available through some Web sleuthing. Sometimes a difference of degree is so significant that it may as well be a difference of kind: Foes of the recording industry rightly note that people have always stolen music by taping it for their friends, but it’s risible to compare the potential effect of running off some cassette copies of an album to that of making a digital copy of that album available for the taking online.

Similarly, it takes a pretty determined busybody or thief to visit the courthouse, and the law has acknowledged this, noting the “practical obscurity” of such records. The Web may not change the status of public records, but it means the end of practical obscurity, enabling drive-by voyeurism for the bored or petty – or identity thieves in the cybercafes of, say, Nigeria or Romania.

[via PogoWasRight]

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