Dangerous Convenience Dangerous Convenience

maiden name and the person's spouse's maiden name. The certificate will report one's residence, place of birth and describe one's career. It will also contain the person's signature, which especially angers Ostergren.

"My husband is a professional engineer. Why in the world would we want our signatures on the Internet? We do banking with those signatures, and he writes his on his seal when he does drawings," Ostergren said. She said lifting signatures from online public documents is easy if they're in PDF files.

Pescatore said online death certificates were a bad idea.

"There are certain things, like birth certificates and death certificates, that are such aids to identity theft that the negative side of making them easily accessible outweighs the positive side," he said.

What is the positive side of making death certificates available online? People use death certificates to prove themselves sole owners of properties they once co-owned with people now deceased, usually spouses. A homeowner doesn't get a new deed when his or her spouse dies. How would a bank know that a spouse was really dead without a county-recorded death certificate? It's the only document lenders accept from the surviving spouse as proof of sole ownership.

Maricopa County provides death certificates online to help citizens accelerate that process, said LeeAnn Wade, office manager of the Maricopa County Recorder's Office. She said forcing citizens to visit government offices or attain this information through the mail would impede commerce.

"We strive for customer service, and that's why we have our records out there so we can make it as easy as we can for the public to obtain this information," Wade said.

She acknowledged death certificates are packed with information that identity thieves could use, although she had never heard of it happening with information from the Recorder's Office. She said the agency wasn't willing to take the records offline given that numerous opportunities for identity thieves would remain elsewhere.

The Recorder's Office is currently shopping for a more flexible redaction software package that would enable it to remove other information new laws might aim to redact. Wade is concerned that if the state goes redaction-crazy, the online versions of the documents will become useless.

"If you're trying to prove somebody died, how do you do that? Some of that personal information has to still be there," Wade said. "The death certificate has to have an original signature. Is that going to be the next thing that has to go out? Other people review our records whether via the Internet or whether they purchase CDs from our office.

Title companies do that; they update their title plans. If I've got everything redacted, where does commerce proceed?"

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.