Putting citizens' records on Web demands caution

Thomas R. Temin

If you take a room full of paper records about individuals, digitize them and put them online, are you violating anyone's privacy?

Looking at the question narrowly, the answer is no. If something was already publicly available, but people had to rummage through files to get it, all you're doing on the Web is adding convenience, right?

But Internet access to records is not merely a linear extension of maintaining records in file cabinets. That is like saying jet travel is an extension of walking.

Having data online greatly amplifies its power. It gives companies, agencies and individuals new tools, tools no one can guarantee will be used judiciously.

The ease of aggregating and searching electronic records gives the data a new and powerful dimension'all at a near zero cost to the user. In many cases, getting the data that's now available online'for instance, court information'used to require a detective or lots of time. Now accessing it takes only a few keystrokes, at any time and from anywhere.

Many state and local governments grapple with the policy issues that separate the reading room and online access models as they put records online. As Trudy Walsh reports in this issue's cover story, Cumberland County, Pa., officials, in putting property assessments online, were careful not to put in a search-by-name function for fear of 'economic voyeurism.'

Many years ago my wife's grandmother would keep a crystal police scanner, with its row of merrily blinking red lights, turned on for hours. Whenever an exciting, crackling call would come on, she'd turn down the professional wrestling, or whatever TV show she was watching, to find out what the local police were up to.

What a marked difference from today. Several jurisdictions, such as Seattle, are putting 911 calls, with their sometimes lurid details, online [GCN/State & Local, October, Page 13]. You don't get names, but you do see addresses of calls and detailed descriptions.

Even though a set of records is thoroughly public, governments must be exquisitely careful when putting them online. After all, with few exceptions, there is no legal mandate for posting records, so officials aren't necessarily obligated to post everything in a totally searchable format. I know that sounds contrary to the zeitgeist of the cyber age. But citizens' fear of privacy invasion and their mistrust of government stewardship of data on individuals are real, too.

When putting records about individuals online, the watchword is: Proceed with caution.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: [email protected]


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