Can Public Data Be Too Public?
By Russell Perkins
Does the act of putting public records on the Web and making them more broadly and conveniently accessible make them "too public" by opening them to casual browsing and easy searching?
On first examination, the answer seems obvious. After all, a public record by definition is a record available to the public. How can more convenient public access to public information be a bad thing?
Some groups, including privacy advocates, law- enforcement agencies and other public officials, think that unrestricted Web access to public records may not be a good idea. The term used to describe the state of public records data right now is "practical obscurity." The term comes from the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion upholding the FBI's refusal to make public a rap sheet on an individual.
Although the rap sheet contained only public information, it had been compiled from public records of several states and was thus deemed too intrusive. The Supreme Court justices concluded, in essence, that multiple public records combined together may yield a private, non-public record.
Building National Databases
Access to state drivers' license files has been a subject of debate for years. The most recent protests centered on a private company's efforts to build a national database of individuals with names, addresses and even photographs obtained from these files—all in the name of creating a service to help businesses reduce check and credit-card fraud.
This particular debate goes to the heart of both the direct marketing and information industries. If you deal in consumer data in any way, you've probably already been confronted with many of these sensitive privacy issues. Make no mistake: These issues soon will impact those who deal in business information, as well.
Already, several states are facing challenges to their Web sites that offer databases of registered professionals such as doctors and accountants. Also, there have been significant controversies about putting physicians' disciplinary and malpractice records online.