Privacy lost with the touch of a keystroke?
Personal info is easily accessed online - and privacy laws have yet to catch up.
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Two years ago she mailed hundreds of letters to individuals in King William, Scott, and Warren counties. Each person received a list of personal details about him or her that Mrs. Ostergren had culled from the Internet. The response was outrage, she says. Within 24 hours of her letters arriving "all three [Virginia] counties shut down their sites," she says. Two still remain offline.Skip to next paragraph
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If the public were more aware, Ostergren insists, few such sites would remain in operation - even if they are legal.
But some legal analysts suggest the tide of Internet exposure may be hard to turn back. It's a generational thing, says Mark McCreary, an attorney at Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia who specializes in Internet privacy issues. He cites Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems' CEO: "If you're online, you have no privacy."
"As the Internet babies come of age - and Generation Y has had the Internet most of their lives ... there's going to be less and less of an expectation of privacy," Mr. McCreary says. "There may be stringent laws coming out saying what we're going to do with your information, but there are very few laws about what you can actually collect outside HIPAA ... and Graham-Leach-Bliley."
Even something as innocuous as junk mail has its source in public records. For years, counties have sold information in bulk to commercial companies that repackage it and resell it, either to other companies or to individuals.
Advertisers, marketing companies, hundreds of websites offering - for a price - "hard-to-find info about people" are all pulling their data from public records. Commercial background reports often have the option of monitoring an individual for a year, as their database is refreshed with new public records. A singles resort, for instance, uses recent divorce filings to plump up its mailing list.
All of this is legal. But, as America becomes a "dossier society," privacy advocates question how much of this activity still corresponds to the original intent of government oversight.
California is the first state to pass a law, this summer, that requires the consumer be told how personal information collected online will be used. In 2002, the state also enacted a law restricting remote access to files on some types of court cases - such as family law, juvenile, mental health, criminal, and civil harassment - that are available only at the courthouse.
With no federal law addressing access issues, each state and county is left to devise its own approach to public records. The Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs has, however, produced three guides, including one called "Privacy Impact Assessment for Justice Information Systems," to help coordinate state and local efforts.
In the meantime, public pressure from people like Ostergren has slowed the movement toward online access in some counties and forced a closer assessment.
Laws now under consideration, says McCreary, focus on individuals' rights to see their own files. "It doesn't mean I should know about my neighbor or should know about other people. But I should be able to confirm the info that is there on me to make sure it's accurate and to keep the government in check."
State and county governments are also looking at the type of data collected and reviewing whether all the categories are necessary, McCreary says. Other solutions, privacy advocates say, might include regulating the information broker industry by keeping closer tabs on how personal data are used and by requiring more accountability from private investigators.
But the bottom line, warn some privacy advocates, may be that "old-fashioned" privacy - once defined by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as "the right to be let alone" - is becoming an anachronism.