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Washington safeguards digital privacy

As more and more public records are stored in digital form, legislatures are starting to wonder if personal information is becoming too readily available.

How public is too public?

As more and more public records are stored in digital form, legislatures across the country are starting to wonder if personal information is becoming too readily available. And some states are taking action to protect their citizens' privacy.

Washington is the latest to enter the debate.

A bill introduced by Republican Rep. Phil Dyer to limit the commercial use of personal information contained in state agencies' electronic records is now wending its way through the legislature. Although all the documents in question are public records, Dyer and others are concerned that publishing them in digital form makes them too available to people who have no legitmate interest in them.

"Some of the most valuable records include personally identifiable information about citizens such as names, addresses, and Social Security numbers," the bill states. "The intent of this legislation is to protect citizens' privacy by delineating between legitimate business use of government records and inappropriate commercial use."

The emergence of the Internet and publicly accessible electronic databases has made it easy for almost anyone to get sensitive information. The Net also makes it easy to spread the information once it's found.

Some legislators on Capitol Hill are also concerned about privacy issues in the digital world.

Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minnesota) introduced the Consumer Internet Privacy Protection Act of 1997, which would make it illegal for online service providers to give out subscriber information without their consent.

Under Dyer's bill, businesses would have to get approval from a state agency when requesting access to records that contains any information that could be used to identify an individual. The company has to explain how the information will be used and agree to protect the confidentiality of the information, in other words, promise not sell or distribute copies without contacting the individual. Violators will be fined on a case-by-case basis.

The kinds of personal information the bill wants to protect includes information found in school, employee, tax collection, law enforcement, and witness protection records.

But Dyer's bill will only safeguard information within state lines.

Federal databases are another issue, and many might be surprised by how much information provided for things like federal tax records is already available online. For example, the Social Security numbers of several well-known billionaires can be found through the Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar database.