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Privacy lost with the touch of a keystroke?

Personal info is easily accessed online - and privacy laws have yet to catch up.

By Susan Llewelyn LeachStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 2004



The highway is packed as you drive home and then a car swerves in front and cuts you off. You jot down the license plate number as the traffic stalls. When you get home, you log onto the Internet, type the plate into publicdata.com, and up pops the owner's name, home address, and driving record.

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New neighbors move in across the street. You wonder how much they earn, how old he is, if they're married or just cohabiting. A few clicks on the county court's website and you're privy to the husband's Social Security number, details about his wife, and the fact that he had a financial spat with a local business.

And it is all perfectly legal.

Public records held at the county clerk's office or city hall have always been available for public scrutiny, but to access them you needed to turn up in person between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Now, in the name of efficiency, many counties are putting their public records online and ending the practical obscurity paper records once offered.

And that's what alarms privacy advocates. It's not just checking out the new neighbors that's at issue. Those public files often contain sensitive personal information - particularly court documents, writes Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group (privacyrights.org) based in San Diego.

Divorce decrees and child-custody cases can include accusations and allegations - whether true or not. Sexual-harassment cases can play on damaging allegations about the plaintiff's lifestyle or sexual history. Private medical records - not open to public scrutiny - sometimes end up in court documents, and thus online, if an insurance holder sues over payment claims. "It is a common tactic of companies to threaten to bring highly sensitive medical information, as well as other personal matters, into the case in order to discourage the plaintiff from proceeding," Ms. Givens notes.

Then there's identity theft and cyberstalking, both of which are significantly simplified by online access to public records.

Legislators are scrambling to catch up with the implications of this new high-speed access to once-privileged information.

Several federal laws already restrict public access to some types of personal data. The Graham-Leach-Bliley Act limits which institutions can view personal financial data. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) keeps a tight lid on personal health records. And the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) keeps minors' details off the Internet. But that leaves everything from marriage licenses to land records to bankruptcies filings to be picked over by the public.

The purpose of allowing the public to view these documents is transparency - a way to monitor the judicial system and ensure the equality of its operations.

"The concept of public records is to shine a light on government action and to ensure fairness," says Tena Friery, research director at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. No one argues with that fundamental tenet of democracy.

Some, however, question whether the objective of keeping government honest cannot be achieved without putting such personal details on the World Wide Web. For instance, Social Security numbers, once described as the "key to your life" and the first thing an identity thief might look for, appear on most official forms and could be blanked out of documents that appear online. But given the expense of going back and redacting thousands of files already online, this isn't always happening.

Virginia resident Betty "BJ" Ostergren, a self-described privacy watchdog, has been following her own state's push toward digitizing public records. "I think it's a stupid, dangerous, reckless venture," she charges.

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