In a feat that may change what it means for a document to be public, more and more municipalities are moving ahead with ambitious plans to put government records on the Net.
In Arizona's Maricopa County, some 32 million public documents are now posted online, giving worldwide access to real estate records and indexes to superior court cases as well as birth, death, and marriage certificates.
In San Diego County, documents recording real estate purchases made over the last two years are available online, just the beginning of what officials there promise will be a comprehensive program to put virtually all records on the Internet. And at least one city in Canada has placed edited versions of tax assessor information on its Web site.
Officials say the moves are part of their efforts to increase efficiency and give citizens better access to government information. And by eliminating the need to drive to a central location during limited office hours, it is clear the agencies have succeeded in their mission.
For their part, civil libertarians generally applaud the moves, but warn that the sites raise new risks to privacy that will require governments and citizens to strike a delicate balance.
"I think we all know the value of public records to a democratic society," said Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "On the other hand, when you look at making public records available on the Internet, you go beyond what the founders of this country had in mind."
Specifically, Givens and other privacy advocates worry that electronic dissemination--especially over the Internet--makes public information susceptible to "data mining," in which the records are culled and cross-referenced with other electronic records. What emerges is a detailed portrait of an individual that is constructed, for instance, from court records documenting a nasty divorce case, liens placed on property, and mountains of other government information available about the person.
Police officers, judges, and prosecutors also worry that the easier access could make their addresses and other personal information available to convicts--many of whom may still be serving prison sentences--or others seeking revenge. Terry Sills, president of a police union in Phoenix, said public records have always posed a threat to police. But with records available on the Internet, he adds, "the problem now is compounded tenfold."
Lawrrie Fitzhugh, a neighborhood activist in Phoenix, said, "The initiative it takes for most people to [physically go to the recorder's office] is very different from somebody casually having access to that information on the Internet. I don't know where the line is, but it's there somewhere." Both Fitzhugh and Sills criticize Maricopa county officials for launching the project before first holding public discussions. "It just happened," Fitzhugh said.
Officials in Victoria, British Columbia, experienced similar opposition when they launched a Web site in September 1996 that provided tax assessor information. On the first day of operation, the site counted more than 1,500 hits, a British Columbia official said. Before the site was launched, the tax assessor typically received 25 to 30 requests for information per day.
"Of course [the Web site] has a legitimate reason to be there, but it's the potential for abuse that concerned us," said Pam Smith, the research and communications officer for British Columbia's information and privacy commissioner. As a result of the opposition, Victoria officials removed the information, and later posted it again with the names of property holders removed.
Victoria's compromise, privacy advocates say, is exactly the kind of approach that may be necessary when considering public information in the digital age. In fact, electronic dissemination, which allows companies anywhere in the world to access an individual's personal information with the click of a button, may force governments and individuals to refashion their public disclosure policies.
"The idea of 'public' has become much more full-blown in this environment than it used to be," said David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. Public "used to mean that information was published in the local community where a particular event occurred, but the Internet really eliminates that local aspect. We now kind of have to come up with a new concept for what it means when information is public."
Officials in Maricopa and San Diego counties say the response to their Web sites by and large has been positive, although misgivings by San Diego County judges has forced the county to delay the full implementation of its Web site. Ultimately, both counties plan to make all public documents available online, a move officials say is inevitable.
"Our position is it [public disclosure] is required by law," said Greg Smith, San Diego County's tax assessor. "We might as well make it as convenient as possible."
Neither county has any plans to remove names or other information from the public records posted online, officials said. Instead, they say they are working with law enforcement officials and others concerned about the online sites to shield their privacy. One option, said San Diego's Smith, is for people to create legal partnerships when purchasing property so the owners' names are not made public.
"Our system does not facilitate getting your hands on all the data in one chunk," added Paul Allsing, director of Maricopa's electronic business center. Officials from both counties add that it is no easier to cull and cross-reference material accessed off the Net than it is to "data mine" by pulling up information off a computer terminal at a government building. In either case, they said, a person has to pull up one record at a time.