Editorial: Are Public Records Too Public?

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The e-mail's subject line read "What I Know About YOU." Thoughts of "Oh, my God. What do they know?" last week quickly turned into "Hmmm. What do they know?" Well, I clicked and ended up at PC Spy 2001, which will "automatically CRACK YOUR CASE with links to thousands of public record databases and secret Web pages!" So it was nothing, but a curious individual who wants to shell out a few bucks can dig up the usual stuff on anyone from scores of public documents, including FBI files, driver's license reports and birth records.

Proponents of open records see the Internet as a way to make court proceedings, property transactions and such more accessible. Privacy advocates counter that having "a neighbor's home sale price or a battered woman's address ... as convenient as the nearest computer [will] make public records too public," said a story in The New York Times on Aug. 24 as it thrust RegisteredToVoteOrNot.com into the frying pan. Originally, that site would allow someone to type in the last name and birth date of any registered Manhattan voter and get the person's address and party affiliation. Its intentions were good: to improve voter participation by naming who's on the ballot and locate one's polling place. That didn't last. "In the wake of the controversy, we've taken some additional steps to protect voters' privacy," a note on the site now reads. "Yet, we did this with some reservations. We can no longer help people verify the accuracy of their address when they move within a ZIP code. We cannot help people determine whether they can vote in the primaries. We've compromised some of the potential civic value to safeguard privacy."

Should the ease of locating personal information restrict it somehow? The U.S. Supreme Court first raised the notion that public records are limited by an assumption of "practical obscurity," in a sense protected by the barriers of time and inconvenience. The Internet pretty much removes those barriers, but that's not the point. If a record is truly public information, it shouldn't matter how easy it is to track it down.

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