Public records represent a wide variety of information that is held by government,
including deeds to property and liens, drivers' license information, crime records, tax
records, and so on.
Especially when compiled in government databases, public
records do threaten privacy in a variety of ways. They create opportunity for law
enforcement snooping. They prevent anonymity and pseudonymity. They can be improperly
used by bureaucrats or released indiscriminately to the public. And, acquired by
criminals, they can be used to further fraud and violent crimes. On the other hand,
public access to government records plays a large part in ensuring open government.
Access to public records allows citizens to monitor the functions of their government
Public records have beneficial uses. An estimated 3 million people change
their last names each year due to marriage and divorce, and 42 million consumers
move every year. Credit reporting agencies and others use public records to track
these changes and preserve the good credit records of many people, while protecting
the economy from people who would hide their bad credit histories or other negative
Public records enable the press and community leaders to investigate and thwart
wrongdoing. In the past, motor vehicle records have been used to contact people whose
cars are observed cruising neighborhoods in search of drugs or prostitutes. Such
records have been used by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers to uncover alcohol abuse by
residents of local communities and by reporters to uncover alcohol abuse by airline
pilots and school bus drivers.
Blanketing public records with secrecy is not a satisfactory solution.
This would compromise important open-government values and prevent beneficial uses.
Governments should not be able to keep records on citizens hidden
from view. Redaction, or editing, of records is also not satisfactory.
This leaves fallible government officials and bureaucracies in control of citizens'
personal information and unanswerable for their conduct.
Instead, loss of privacy must be recognized as a cost of government programs that
require citizens to be counted, catalogued, measured, tested, and watched. The only
satisfactory protection for privacy in the case of public records is to increase
citizen choice about information-sharing and reduce the demand for public records
by reducing the role of government in intimate details of citizens' lives.
Management: Selected Agencies Handling of Personal Information, General Accounting
Office (September 30, 2002)
of Privacy 'Pragmatists' Are Growing, by Mary Mosquera, TechWeb News (December 7, 2000)
Know, by Charles T. Pinck, Legal Times (October 30, 2000)