Privacy and Access to Public Records in the Information Age

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Title: Privacy and Access to Public Records in the Information Age
Creators: Bermann, Sol
Issue Date: 2006-04
Publisher: John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy
Series/Report no.: Battelle Policy Day Working Paper 6-01
Abstract: Historically, public records, specifically court-related records, have had some measure of public accessibility. Similar to the right to an open court system, the notion of open records goes to the public's right to observe the goings-on of government which leads to government accountability. At the Federal level, one guarantee of open records is embodied by the Freedom of Information Act. At the state level, records are open or closed according to state law. Online public record access brings a wealth of potential benefits ranging from greater government access and accountability to increased cost-savings and efficiencies. However, due to the presence of highly sensitive, personal data, an increase in public records access also brings potential dangers, including heightened risk of identity theft and frivolous snooping into the affairs of others. How can government embrace the opportunities provided by online public records, but also secure the privacy rights of its citizens? There are four possible approaches to this public records policy dilemma: 1. Provide the broadest access to public records by placing them on the Internet, unmodified from their current paper or electronic format. This maximizes access but minimizes privacy. 2. Review the data elements within the public record files and modify them to protect individual privacy interests (ex: redact social security numbers to help prevent identity theft). A middle ground approach. 3. Create a bifurcated records system that would limit online access to certain private or sensitive information, but leave the complete paper or electronic record available for public review at the record holder's office. Another middle ground approach. 4. Do not place any public records related to citizens online at all. This minimizes access, but maximizes privacy. Expanding on lessons learned from the experiences of the Privacy and Public Access Sub-Committee of the Supreme Court of Ohio Advisory Committee on Technology and the Courts,6 this paper will discuss how following approach #2, modifying public records laws and rules so that public record information is the same online and off-line, can increase governmental accessibility and accountability, create greater governmental efficiency, all the while retaining individual privacy.
Description: Paper presented on February 7, 2006 at a full-day conference co-sponsored by Battelle Memorial Institute and the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy, to examine the intersection of 21st century technology and personal privacy.
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