Public records vs. privacy
Before the World Wide Web, public records sat collecting dust in U.S. courthouses. But today, governments considering posting documents online have found out that there are different rules for electronic documents, which, once they are posted on the Internet, have the potential to be read by anyone, anywhere.
Jim Cissell, Cincinnati, Ohio, clerk of courts, thought he was providing a public service when he moved court records – public information already available electronically – onto an easily searchable county Web site. Area residents flocked to the site to look up tax liens, arrest warrants, child support payments, and divorce proceedings. As a result, Cissell’s office has received a flurry of complaints, including threats to vote him out of office in the next election.
The online database, which allows users to search traffic, criminal, civil, family, and appellate records for a single name, has enabled employers to check out prospective employees, parents to discover their teenager’s speeding tickets, and neighbors to learn about other neighbors’ divorces. There have also been cases of fraud committed by perpetrators who acquired Social Security numbers from various documents.
Cissell argues that state law does not grant him the discretion to select which documents go online and which do not. The existing law states that all records must be public unless sealed by court order. He has drafted a proposal that would keep certain materials, such as family court transcripts, financial statements, and psychiatric reports offline. The Ohio state legislature is currently grappling with how to create a balance between open access and privacy regarding sensitive matters. Local judges have issued “not to be published on the Internet” orders to protect financial and medical data from widespread distribution. The Web site now instructs those who wish to shield matters from appearing online to obtain a court-ordered seal.
Other states are struggling with the same dilemma. The federal court decided last year that documents in civil and bankruptcy cases, but not criminal cases, should be available electronically without personal information such as Social Security numbers and birth dates. In 2000, Florida passed a law mandating that official state documents be accessible online by 2006. But the state reconsidered that law this year by banning the posting of personal records such as military discharges, death certificates, and family court matters. Other states, including Arizona, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have task forces studying the issue.
Copyright Association of Records Managers and Administrators Inc. Nov/Dec 2002
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