Publicly available v. readily accessible

The authors of Blown to Bits, an absolutely superb book on life 'after the digital explosion,' note that


There is a difference ... between 'public' and 'readily accessible.'

Public records such as real estate transfers, birth records, and business transactions often contain sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, mother's health information, credit card numbers, voter registration, fingerprints, professional occupations, and the like. While these data technically always have been available to the public, the difficulty of sifting through the paper records made large-scale aggregation and use nearly impossible.

What happens when those public records get digitized, however? What happens when public databases become easily accessible? What happens when paper records are turned into searchable text via optical character recognition and/or tagging? Or, as the authors, note, what happens when all of this public information gets merged with commercial marketing databases?

As the IowaLandRecords.org controversy here in Iowa shows, we need to do some tough thinking on this topic. Just how 'public' do we want our public records to be?

A few useful resources

  • Arias, M. (2007). Internet access to public records v. privacy: What a complex clash to unravel.
  • Bermann, S. (2006). Privacy and access to public records in the digital age.
  • Center for Democracy and Technology. (1995). Public records: Access, privacy, and public policy.
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center. (2007). Privacy and public records.
  • Levitt, C. (2002). Regulating the availability of public records online.
  • Levitt, C. (2005). How public are public records?
  • Neave, M. (2003). International regulation of the publication of publicly accessible personal information.
  • Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. (2006). Public records on the Internet: The privacy dilemma.