At first, it sounds obvious: If citizens can read public records in the county courthouse, surely those citizens are entitled to read the same information on the Web.

But as more governments put public records online, protests from certain quarters prompt public-sector officials to think long and hard about how to balance open government and the right to privacy.

For those who need some of the information contained in transactions such as tax payments and real-estate sales, it's much easier to tap an e-government site than appear in person and leaf through paper files. But the thought that people who may want to harm others can, in a few clicks, locate home addresses and Social Security numbers of potential victims turns the stomachs of some public-sector leaders.

Among those who feel most alarmed are some government officials who fear that putting their personal details online makes them easy targets for criminals.

In the Public Eye

In May 2005, Dan Onorato, chief executive of Allegheny County, Pa., agreed to take the names of about 100 federal, state and local judges off a county real-estate Web site.

According to news reports, he did this at the behest of a federal judge, who expressed safety concerns after the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow were murdered in Lefkow's Chicago home in February 2005.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in May, Lefkow asked for a law that would prohibit the posting of personal information about judges and other public officials on the Internet without their written consent.

In July, the county refused a request that it also remove police officers' names. Then, County Council member Bill Robinson introduced legislation to suppress the names of all property owners, not just public officials. It required that any member of the public seeking the name of a property owner make a formal request via letter or e-mail.

In September, the county started testing a version of the real-estate Web site on which a person searching property records by address would not see the owner's name, and a person searching by name would not see the address. Allegheny County officials did not know when or if the site would go public, and did not respond to requests for an interview.

Missouri Makes a List

In Missouri, concern about government officials' privacy also sparked a controversy over government Web sites.

The state passed a law in 2005 prohibiting courts and state and local agencies from posting the home address, Social Security number or telephone number of any elected or appointed public official on the Internet without that person's written consent.

The law listed 13 categories of officials to be protected, including state legislators, judges, county commissioners, mayors and city council members, police chiefs, sheriffs, and peace officers, among others.

Four Missouri counties -- Boone, Cass, Jackson and Platte -- sued the state over the law. The counties said it would force them to shut down databases of public information on their Web sites, since gaining permission from every relevant public official would be absurdly difficult and expensive.

The four counties developed e-government services because that's what citizens asked for, said Ken Evans, director of e-government and public relations for Jackson County.

"This law, because of the unfortunate way it was worded, put that whole initiative in jeopardy," Evans said.

The law would have affected two databases providing tax records and information on real-estate sales on Jackson County's Web site. Following the outcry from the counties, the state Legislature repealed the law, replacing it with a law containing language that covers both private citizens and government officials.

The new law makes it illegal for anyone to post

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer