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Home > Privacy and Government > The Benefits of Access to Government Information

The Benefits of Access to Government Information

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 consumers.

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.


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[updated 06/15/01]

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