Is there too much public info on the Web?

Is there too much public info on the Web?

Governments seek to balance providing access to public records with citizens' privacy concerns

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

It's commonplace for any interested citizen to drive'or walk'down to the county courthouse and ask to see all kinds of public records: property assessments, bankruptcy records, divorce proceedings. Sometimes the clerk will charge a nominal fee, but most of the time it is free.

The paper records often are stored in cardboard boxes or as small rolls of microfilm.

Public records are public, all right, but it used to be that anyone who wanted to see them had to muster considerable persistence to find them. Such research was not for the idle voyeur.


Many public records that used to sit in cardboard boxes in county courthouses are now posted on the Web.
All that has changed in the last few years.

County courthouses routinely put public records in a searchable format on their Web sites. No one wants to root around musty cardboard boxes for such information.

But are those in charge of public records trading citizens' privacy expectations for Web data access that is free and easy to attain? Does such access require special controls?

Those were some of the questions citizens in Cumberland County, Pa., were asking when county officials this summer put property assessments on the county's Web site, at www.ccpa.net. The county of about 200,000 lies just west of Pennsylvania's capital, Harrisburg.

Visitors can search property assessments on the site by address or by parcel number, but not by owner's name. 'That's not by accident,' said John Ward, Cumberland County's chief clerk. It is a deliberate attempt to protect citizens' privacy, Ward said.

Property owners receive their parcel numbers by postal mail from the county. To look up property assessments by name, a researcher must visit the courthouse.

The data itself is protected, too, said Jerry Wilkes, Cumberland's director of technology and information.

Web visitors to the county's Web site can access a copy of the property assessment database, but not the live data, he said.

'It's analogous to making a photocopy of the Constitution,' Wilkes said.

The property assessment data resides in two places. One copy of the data is stored in a Microsoft SQL Server Version 7.0 database at an undisclosed vendor site.

The other copy is stored on a county-owned server, which sits within what Wilkes calls a 'demilitarized zone.'

The zone is a protected subnetwork separated from the rest of the network. It has its own external IP address.

The public can view the data but not modify it. County officials can access the database for maintenance.


New Jersey is considering the possibility of putting divorce records on the state Web site, which will raise a lot of questions, says Toni McLaughlin, assistant director of Internet services.
Wilkes also runs a Private Internet eXchange Firewall 515 data security device from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., to control transactions going in or out of the county Web site.

Cumberland County officials still struggle with how much information to post.''Some say it's too much information out there, some say it's too little,' Wilkes said.

But the assessment data has proven popular, Wilkes said. Within three days of posting the data on the Web this summer, Wilkes had to put a second server online to handle the traffic. The site uses two Dell PowerEdge 2300 700-MHz Pentium III servers with 64M of RAM each.

'People use the system for true property comparisons. They can see if their property has been assessed fairly compared to their neighbor's property,' Wilkes said. 'But we wanted to prevent economic voyeurism. That's why there's no name search.'

But some government agencies post financial information that is searchable by name. For example, Idaho's federal District and Bankruptcy Court posts online bankruptcy cases arising in the state. Visitors to www.id.uscourts.gov/doc.htm can search the Remote Access to Court Electronic Records database by case number, debtor name, attorney, date range or Social Security number. Developed by Wade Systems Inc. of Oklahoma City, RACER works with several court management systems, including the National Integrated Bankruptcy System, which is based on Microsoft FoxPro Version 2.6. All the data is tied together with a Visual Basic front end, said Peter Diaz, Wade's vice president for operations.

What's in a name?

A search of the Idaho RACER site under a common last name turns up a married couple in Gooding, Idaho. Click on 'creditor listing,' and a visitor can view a list of the debtors' 91 creditors, including a Burger King in Jerome, Idaho, and Peterson Western Wear in Twin Falls.

Like Cumberland's property assessment site, RACER is quite popular. The site receives more than 1,000 visitors a day, according to Doug Ward, systems manager of the Idaho District and Bankruptcy Court.

Thirty years ago, detailed bankruptcy information such as this was available in Idaho. But it would be accessible to the curious only if they made their way to Boise and manually sifted through the files at the courthouse. But now anyone'anywhere'who has a Web browser can read about debtors' financial troubles.

The nature of the Web has prompted questions about whether public records should maintain their public nature in electronic form.

For example, New Jersey officials are considering putting residents' divorce proceedings on the Web, said Toni McLaughlin, assistant director of Internet services for New Jersey's Administrative Office of the Courts.

Every piece of paper that comes into the state's court system is scanned and saved digitally. 'Now that records are in a digital format, they are much more easily distributed,' she said. 'In a divorce, you have a lot of accusations made, some of which can be quite acrimonious. How much privacy are you entitled to? And even though public records are public in paper form, should they still be treated as public records when they are in electronic form?'

McLaughlin said the state is not at a point where it can make a determination. In a few months, New Jersey will hold a public forum on the subject.

'It'll be a few years before we reach a consensus,' she said.

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