Public records held at the county clerk’s office or city hall have always been available for public scrutiny, but to access them you needed to turn up in person between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Now, in the name of efficiency, many counties are putting their public records online and ending the practical obscurity paper records once offered. And this alarms some privacy advocates, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Legislators are scrambling to catch up with the implications of this new high-speed access to once-privileged information.
Those public files often contain sensitive personal information – particularly court documents, writes Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group (privacyrights.org) based in San Diego. Divorce decrees and child-custody cases can include accusations and allegations – whether true or not. Sexual-harassment cases can play on damaging allegations about the plaintiff’s lifestyle or sexual history. Private medical records – not open to public scrutiny – sometimes end up in court documents, and thus online, if an insurance holder sues over payment claims. Then there’s identity theft and cyberstalking, both of which are significantly simplified by online access to public records.