January 2, 2006 By Merrill Douglas
"Jackson County would have no problem proving that what we're doing is with the intent of serving citizens," he explained.
Ever since it first put its tax and real-estate databases online, Jackson County has fielded occasional complaints from public officials and private citizens who fear that easy access to their personal information could aid assassins or stalkers, Evans said. In response, the county points out that this information is already available to anyone motivated to search it out.
"If you really have a safety issue, you don't solve it just by taking the data offline," he said. "If it's still in the public record, [a person] can just come to the courthouse, request it and get it."
One change Jackson County officials would like to make is to keep Social Security numbers out of not just electronic records, but all public records, to protect citizens from identify theft. It's illegal, however, under Missouri law for a county deed recorder to "cleanse" Social Security numbers from real-estate documents before making them part of the official government record.
"I think we can fix that," Evans said. "I just don't think the amount of attention necessary has been given to it yet."
Though Jackson County officials -- and many others -- maintain that posting a public record online is the same as providing it on paper, not everyone agrees.
"There's a difference in 'practical obscurity,'" said Daniel Solove, associate professor at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., and author of The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age.
"Practical obscurity" refers to the privacy an individual enjoys when personal information contained in public records is relatively hard to obtain. If a would-be harasser must travel some distance, wait in line and deal face-to-face with clerks to obtain a victim's home address and phone number, he or she might think twice about taking action.
"When you put it on the Internet, I can get information about anyone at any time, at the click of a mouse," Solove said, meaning that one can quickly and anonymously assemble a dossier on a person with information from different sources in different states, or even assemble databases of information about individuals.
Laws about personal information on the Internet vary from state to state, and governments that put public records on the Web often act without understanding the legal ramifications, Solove said.
"We're in an area where the law is not entirely clear," he continued. "I think some government officials said, 'Let's just put it up there. Let's make it all public.'"
But that's not always allowable, he said.
Although the controversies in Pennsylvania and Missouri both started with requests from public officials, in each case the argument broadened to address privacy for all citizens. It's only fair, said Evans, and Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields has stressed that point.
"She believes that to the extent that her information is out there, too," Evans explained. "It's all or nothing with e-government."
Though Evans said government should be careful about posting personal information on the Web, Solove agreed that government officials should not receive special treatment.
"It's true that they do need privacy," he said, adding a caveat. "I don't think it's fair that they just protect their own and leave everyone else out to dry."
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