Public records are an important element that help keep democratic governments transparent. However, there are some costs that come with maintaining and providing information to the general public. There are the actual financial costs of keeping data and files on servers and in warehouses and there are the service costs involved in responding to requests for information. But, there is also a cost to the privacy of individuals and organizations that does not have a dollar figure attached to it.
Believe it or not, the basic underlying rationale behind public records systems is nearly as old as time itself. It dates back to ancient Babylon where public records were created by writing cuneiform on clay tablets. Even the South American Incan Empire that lacked a written vocabulary maintained an elaborate public records system by tying knots in cords. The finished record was commonly called quipu, for which the original meaning was lost over time.
Likewise, western European societies of the late Middle Age incorporated census records in addition to birth, death and marriage records. By the same token, the UK Public Office Act of 1838 formalized public recordkeeping by establishing a Public Record Office.
All the above-listed developments were deemed necessary for organized societies characterized by taxation, legal disputes and other significant life events. By credible report, the institution of public records was designed to enhance government accountability and transparency.
Accessing public records
Public accessibility of national records in the U.S. is governed by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Requests for access to records pursuant to FOIA may be summarily refused by federal agencies if the requested data is exempted from FOIA’s purviews. Alternatively, a valid FOIA request may be answered by disclosure of partially redacted data.
Besides the federal FOIA, all 50 states have passed some type of FOI laws. Relative levels of public record accessibility and mandatory request procedures vary widely from one state to the next.
Public records prompt controversy
Due in large part to the Internet’s inception amid today’s Information Age, virtually anyone in the U.S. can quickly and easily access public records kept on any subject desired. A chief case is information brokers who make extensive use of Web-based databanks to compile demographic profiles for millions of people whose personal data is accessible for a mouse click.
Here are just some of the public documents and data that you can easily find online:
- Tax records
- Appraisals and tax-assessed value of real property
- Bankruptcy Court files
- Driving histories
- Current geo residential location
- Medical data, especially emergent standardized electronic formats
- Voter registrations
- Court dockets
- Legislative minutes
- Professional and business licenses
- Original applications for Social Security numbers
- Arrest records
- Criminal convictions
In many instances, public records are designed to benefit people trying to collect past-due child support, avoid identity theft, ensure the accuracy of their credit reports and collect pension benefits. Prospective employers routinely conduct online background checks on job applicants. Insurance carriers make preliminary inquiries into prospective policyholders’ previous claims payment records to assess the level of perceived risk they present. Similarly, prospective employers and lenders often do online criminal history checks to weed out “undesirables”.
Despite the above-listed advantageous aspects, many have become quite alarmed at the ease with which identity thieves and other malfeasants with more sinister motivations may access personal information via Cyberspace. Indeed, some believe the World Wide Web is gradually creating a “dossier society” wherein everyone is subject to indefinite covert surveillance by remote electronics gear.
Another widespread fear stems from the perpetuity of electronic data that may easily preclude any chance of social forgiveness for embarrassing personal issues that require court intervention to resolve. Such ultra-sensitive data can literally live forever and even survive the affected person’s death. That essentially means no length of time passage will neutralize the devastating impacts of original event(s). This rule holds true even for legally expunged or sealed court records.
Closing remarks about release of private information
Regardless of how badly we may want it, public records systems will never revert to earlier times of relatively primitive methods. Ergo, we must take the sour with the sweet by accepting high technology’s double-edged blades. Those who don’t want to see themselves plastered all over Cyberspace should be more selective about which virtual communities they join and exercise care after being approved for membership.
Do not track requests can be sent directly from browsers to external websites. Likewise, Web surfing histories are very easy to delete. Uploading neutral images instead of headshots when communicating online is also well-advised. It’s also probably a good idea to make a living will that provides instructions for disposal of all personalized digital data upon one’s death.
For instance, online email companies often allow account holders to designate a trusted third party to receive confidential email after some minimum period of inactivity. Finally, sensitive data such as SSNs and credit card or bank account numbers should never be transmitted via regular emails. Instead, complete such transactions by phone or an “https” secure portal that integrates the highest encryption level.