Many important benefits come from public access to information held by
the government. They should be kept in mind as we consider the threats to privacy
posed by many government programs.
Access to goverment records is needed for effectively monitoring government activities.
The ability of citizens to hold government accountable may be directly related to their
ability to see what information is collected, how it is maintained, who it is about,
and how it is used. Journalists often stand in for the general public when they
investigate public matters using records held by the government. The watchdog press
makes regular use of information held by governments.
In a variety of ways, information held by the government can be used to bring people
together. Public record information can provide both the media and others with valuable
information that identifies people who live in a certain area or who are involved in a
certain line of business. State records can link individuals to specific information
(such as genealogical records, financial needs, hobbies, and business interests) and
provide interested parties with the information necessary to make valuable contacts.
Public record information can also help track down missing family members, heirs, other
beneficiaries, witnesses, tax evaders, and deadbeat parents.
Access to government information also may smooth the flow of commerce and create
economic efficiencies. Insurance companies, credit bureaus and, direct-marketing
organizations use government records to obtain a large volume of information that may
otherwise not be cost-effectively available. They use it to offer people products that
benefit them. When business can collect information about potential customers from
a central repository like a government database, they can pass the savings along to
Access to government information also protects public safety. Records of arrests
and convictions, for example, help people determine whether
they want to hire prospective employees for sensitive jobs.
They may help people learn of and respond to dangerous people
living in their communities. Access to government information
may also protect against crimes like identity
fraud by enabling people and companies to confirm who
they are dealing with.
All these benefits do not justify depriving people of privacy by forcing them to
hand information over to governments. Governments should minimize the personal information
that they collect. If information must be collected, however, there are substantial
reasons to make it accessible.