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Personal Data for the Taking

A class at Johns Hopkins was able to build detailed dossiers on Baltimore citizens using only public databases.
David Scull for The New York Times
A class at Johns Hopkins was able to build detailed dossiers on Baltimore citizens using only public databases.

Published: May 18, 2005

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(Page 2 of 2)

Like any other American, Mr. Albright deposited these tidbits in various databases as he conducted the routine transactions- voting, buying a house, donating money to a campaign - and they became public records. As more of those records are made available on the Internet (a Government Accountability Office study last November estimated that as many as 28 percent of county governments now make public records available online), anyone with Internet access, anywhere in the world, can dig them up.

"I think what this professor and students have done is a powerful object lesson in just how much information there is to be found about most of us online," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, "and how difficult it is, how impossible it is, to control what's done with our information."

Journalists, private investigators, law enforcement officials and others who gather background information on individuals for a living tend to view as a boon the migration of public records databases to the Internet, as well as the combination of those records at one-stop shops like ChoicePoint and LexisNexis, which is owned by Reed Elsevier.

But some privacy advocates are arguing that ease of access has a downside, too. Social Security numbers, they say, remain easy to come by, particularly in the thousands of public documents now being scanned and made available online. Social Security numbers present a particular threat because they are the primary identifiers that let thieves open credit lines, apply for loans or otherwise pose as another person.

Betty Ostergren, a former insurance claims supervisor in Virginia, has become an expert in digging up scanned documents and other information from local government Web sites around the country.

"I don't want these records on the Internet," said Ms. Ostergren, whose Web site, the Virginia Watchdog (, documents her efforts, complete with defiant instructions on how to find sensitive information on public officials. "I hate to do it," she said, "but I'm trying to get my point across."

That includes the Social Security numbers and signatures of the director of central intelligence, Porter J. Goss, and his wife. They can be found in records made available on a county court Web site in Florida.

David Bloys, a private investigator in Texas, is equally concerned. He has helped draft a bill now before the Texas Legislature that would prohibit the bulk transfer and display over the Internet of documents filed with local government.

There are real dangers involved, Mr. Bloys said, when such information "migrates from practical obscurity inside the four walls of the courthouse to widespread dissemination, aggregation and export across the world via the Internet." However convenient online access has made things for legitimate users, the information is equally convenient for "stalkers, terrorists and identity thieves," he said.

The bill, introduced in Austin by Representative Carl Isett, a Republican, was unanimously approved by the State Affairs Committee on May 3, but did not make the deadline for a House vote. A spokesman said Mr. Isett was seeking to amend another bill with language from his proposal.

And just two weeks ago in Alaska, the American Civil Liberties Union - a strong advocate of openness and access to public documents - took up the cause of Maryjane Hinman, a nurse who had lobbied unsuccessfully to have her home address removed from the state's online registry of occupational licenses.

"We feel that open access to public records is key to a free society," said Jason Brandeis, the A.C.L.U. lawyer handling the suit, which seeks to bar Alaska from disseminating contact information for licensed nurses. "But a balance needs to be struck between the public interest in open access to government information, and the need to protect individual privacy."

Whether such a balance can ever be achieved when so much information is already available is an open question. And some people are troubled by recent trends against access.

"I have no problem with an individual who faces unusual threats from publication of her identity or identifying details being able under the law to seek special exception from openness," said Rebecca Daugherty, the director of the Freedom of Information Service Center for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Virginia. "But the secrecy should be the exception not the rule."

Several Johns Hopkins students came to a similar conclusion. Despite their surprise at the number of records they could amass and combine, many still felt that the benefits of openness outweighed the risks.

"If some citizen is concerned about dead people remaining registered to vote, he can simply obtain the database of deaths and the voter registration database and cross-correlate," said 21-year-old Joshua Mason, whose group discovered 1,500 dead people listed as active registered voters. Fifty of those dead people somehow voted in the last election.

"The problem is, we don't know what we want," Dr. Rubin said, referring to the competing social interests in openness and privacy.

"It is clear that there are strong negative consequences to being able to collect and correlate all this information on people," he said, "but it is also possible that the consequences to personal freedom would be worse if it were outlawed."

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