Public Records in Public View -- Online?


In 1990, two men were released from Alaska prisons after serving terms for sexual abuse. The first, John Doe I, pleaded no contest to a 1985 charge that he abused his young daughter. The second served a six-year sentence for abusing a 14-year-old girl.

Each had paid his debt to society and wanted to put the past behind him. But in 1994, after learning that one-quarter of Alaska's state inmates were sex offenders, the Alaska legislature enacted the Alaska Sex Offender Registration Act. The law requires convicted sex offenders to register with law enforcement. It also empowers local officials to publish the information on the Internet for use by "any person for any purpose."

The two men, along with the wife of John Doe I, filed a federal civil rights case against Alaska's attorney general and its commissioner for public safety, seeking to quash the law on grounds that it constitutes further punishment. Doe's wife alleged that disclosure of her husband's criminal background would "undermine her professional relationships" at the hospital in which she worked and her ability to care for patients.

WATCHING CLOSELY. On Nov. 13, the case, Godfrey v. Doe, goes to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nine justices will decide whether by broadcasting the men's names on the Internet, the law metes out additional, unfair punishment -- or whether it simply uses technology to protect the public from sexual predators. State and local governments are closely watching the case, which underscores a question that's being debated across the country: Just which public records should be made available with the click of a mouse to anyone and everyone? Not only criminal records are at issue, but also bankruptcy filings, divorce settlements, tax, property, birth, marriage, and death records -- even pet licenses.

The answer to the question isn't simple. On the one hand, if information is part of the public record, it should be made available to the public in the most accessible way possible. After all, public records were available long before the Internet. All you had to do was go down to government offices and ask. On the other hand, in the days before the Net, the sheer effort required to sift through paper records was a deterrent to mass distribution of the information.

The power of the Internet raises the questions of whether distinctions should be made between the type of information that makes our society more transparent and accountable, and the type that can make it more dangerous. The gruesome murders of actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 and New Hampshire woman Amy Boyer in 1999 both might have been avoided if their stalkers had not easily been able to obtain personal information, such as their addresses, online.

MEGAN'S LAW. Whether the Does' constitutional right to protection from ex post facto punishment is for the court to decide. But from a privacy perspective, the matter seems pretty clear-cut: Public safety should outweigh a convicted sexual offender's right to privacy. Federal legislation signed in 1996 by President Clinton mandates that all states have a "Megan's Law," which requires that states notify local residents if convicted sex offenders live in their area. (It's named in memory of a New Jersey seven-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a convicted sex offender who lived nearby.) The Internet is the fastest and easiest way to make that vital information available to parents.

In fact, says attorney John Roberts, who is arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of Alaska's commissioner of public safety, posting a list of sex offenders online is more innocuous than other methods, such as personal notification of everyone who lives within a mile of the convicted felon. In his view, Internet dissemination fails to qualify as additional punishment.

Still, it's reasonable to argue that some public information -- much of which seems harmless -- should be kept private. Take property records. County assessors collect names of owners, plus descriptions of their property and its assessed value, all for tax purposes. In some areas, county officials also keep blueprints of local homes. How does that serve the public good? In fact, posting architectural plans plus names and addresses on the Net, which some counties do, could make it simpler for thieves to locate homes with unsecured entrances and easy exits.

INFO FOR SALE. Another example is the motor vehicle registration database, which by law is open to the public in every state. In theory, knowing who drives what car shouldn't raise eyebrows. But witness the public outcry in Oregon in 1996, when Portland computer consultant Aaron Nabil bought a full list of the state's auto registrations for $222 and posted it to his Web site.

Complaints streamed in to the motor vehicles department. Some consumers worried that enterprising crooks could go to an airport's long-term parking lot, make a list of license plate numbers, discover the addresses of the owners, and loot their homes while the unsuspecting travelers were out of town. Others worried that a complete list of names, addresses, and vehicle registrations would make it easy for stalkers to track down victims. The result: Governor John Kitzhaber called Nabil personally and successfully pleaded with him to take the list down.

The patchwork of state laws and policies across the country underscore the complexity of the problem. On the Web site for Summit County, Ohio, two clicks will lead curious Web surfers to a full list of the area's 458 registered sex offenders, including addresses and mug shots -- not to mention divorce records, medical malpractice suits, and tax investigations. Compare that to Florida, which has one of the country's strictest open-records provisions: Its Judicial Management Council has advocated a moratorium on online court records until a suitable privacy policy is in place.

DON'T GO PUBLIC? Such moves infuriate open-access advocates, who argue that public information is collected with public monies for the public good and, therefore, should be available to the public. "If we don't know what the government has, the government shouldn't collect it," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Her advice to people who want to keep their business private: Keep it out of the courts, which are a public forum. "If it's public information, then there is no reason to prevent officials from publishing that information online."

Still, even Dalglish predicts that the power of the Internet will ultimately result in the restriction of some sensitive records, especially those on sticky family issues involving children. Most states, she says, are moving toward a two-tiered plan: The most sensitive records will be available only on paper. The rest will be put online.

That's one solution. But it fails to address the fundamental issue of whether all records should indeed be public. "Technology's advance must change policy," declares Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant based in Washington, D.C. "We need to reexamine some of the old, ill-considered assumptions that all records should be public."

Such a reassessment won't result in a permanent solution. Mores change over time. And new threats arise. Only 10 years ago, government officials were blasé over worries that Social Security numbers might not be kept confidential. Today, because of rising identity theft, Social Security numbers are automatically removed from government documents that are made public. The future is likely to be a never-ending balancing act between the public's right to know and the public's right to safety. By Privacy Matters columnist Jane Black in New York. For more columns about

privacy, see the Privacy Matters archive


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