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Criminals' privacy rights weighed

Policymakers try to balance public records online and privacy protections, even for convicted felons.

Florida residents can use the Net to look up the addresses of sexual predators released from prison. But they can no longer look up their Social Security numbers.

The state decided to remove the Social Security numbers from the database after a rash of stories surfaced this spring about the need to protect individuals' privacy on the Net. Policymakers decided that the practice invaded the privacy of the convicted sexual molesters, in spite of the fact that the database is intended to make sure they can't disappear after getting out of prison.

The same issue is facing many policymakers trying strike a balance between publishing more public records online and protecting private information--even on dangerous criminals.

Most privacy advocates don't oppose the idea of the sexual predator database if all the information included is legally accessible through other means. But, they say, some sensitive data, such as Social Security numbers, should never be put online because it invites fraud.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched its database of hundreds of "sexual predators" last August. The site also has a missing children database and the state's most-wanted list.

Florida has not yet received any complaints of fraud, but the Department of Law Enforcement has received tips from the database about missing children and released sexual predators.

"One woman called and said there was a man in her community she thought was a sexual predator, based on information she saw on the site. She thought he was involved in a Boy Scout troop," said Liz Hirst, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's public information director. "An officer checked it out and determined he was working with children, which he wasn't supposed to be doing. So he was charged with violating his probation and given 60 more months in jail."

In that case the site worked as it should--to alert a community about a potentially dangerous person, Hirst said. But privacy advocates charge that information could also be misused.

Early last month, the Social Security numbers of the convicts were removed from their profiles, which include a picture, a description of physical characteristics, the nature of their crimes, and their last known street addresses. Florida was prompted to delete the numbers after the Social Security Administration killed a service in April that lets Net users look up their salary histories online and calculate how much they can expect in Social Security benefits.

While the database was intended to provide a public service, it was instead the target of a public backlash from people who claimed the site could be used to find out private information. A few weeks after the site was closed, four bills were introduced in Congress to keep the numbers off the Net permanently.

Florida's Department of Law Enforcement agreed that posting Social Security numbers crossed the privacy line. "We determined that it was in the best interest to remove the Social Security numbers because people could use them for other illegal activity," Hirst said.

Some privacy advocates argue that the database shouldn't include the last known address of the predators either.

"If the intent is to identify people who have committed certain sex crimes, then some personal identifiable information needs to be there," said Stanton McCandlish, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But with last known address being up there, that puts you on the front doorstep of the guy, and that could start off some vigilante-like behavior."

California is also considering a bill that would create an Internet directory of registered sex offenders. But Rep. Jim Battin's (R-Palm Desert) bill only calls for zip codes to be posted, not street addresses. To further deter the threat of vigilantism, the bill also would fine those who use the database in the furtherance of a crime as much as $100,000.

Despite its newly stated concern for privacy issues, Florida is in fact increasing the use of the Net and related technologies to increase public safety. Sexual offenders and other dangerous felons will be added to the database in October. The Public Safety Information Act--now awaiting the governor's signature--also requires these convicts to get a current digitized photo for posting on the Web site.

The law indicates that broadcasting the whereabouts of criminals on the Net is still more important than shielding all of their personal data, at least in Florida.

"We haven't had any concerns about the addresses that I've heard," added Lucy Ingley, crime intelligence analyst for Florida's sexual predator unit. "The public seems very interested in getting information on this topic."

Some people question the whole idea of maintaining the database. Glen Roberts, publisher of Full Disclosure, a newsletter on privacy issues, discovered in March that Florida had been posting Social Security numbers online.

"At first glance it appears to be a wonderful idea, because these people have been convicted of doing bad things. But where can anybody convicted of a sex crime live and work under this system?" Roberts said. "It opens the door up for serious harassment."