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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Threats to Privacy > Public Records > Government Databases

Government Databases

Government databases are a subset of public records. Because they store large quantities of information and make it relatively accessible, government databases are particularly susceptible to threatening privacy. Databases are created by governments to serve many entirely laudable goals. This does not diminish their privacy-invading potential, however, and the growth in government databases has created some disturbing trends.

One such trend is the proclivity of governments to enlist private business as a functionary in crime fighting and social control. Businesses have a great deal of personal information about citizens. They will divulge it to governments without objecting the way citizens would if they were asked to divulge information about themselves directly.

Unlike other databases, those in the hands of governments can be redeployed contrary to the wishes and interests of citizens about whom the information was originally collected. The information can be used to violate privacy, and worse, while denying citizens any recourse. Governments have a natural, but unfortunate tendency to expand the uses they make of databases, sometimes quite adventurously. Only the best example of this was the use of census data to round up Americans of Japanese ancestry and intern them during World War II.

The existence of a growing network of government databases puts dangerous incentives on criminal investigators. With so much information about individuals available to them, investigators may fall into the convenient trap of investigating people instead of crimes. In other words, they may fix on particular individuals and look for information to substantiate that they have committed crime, rather than investigating crimes to find out who was the perpetrator.

Finally, the General Accounting Office has found many U.S. government databases to be substantially insecure. Especially given how comprehensive they tend to be, these databases are ripe targets for people who may collect information from them and use it to harm citizens.


The Feds and Your Privacy by Lucas Mast, Cato Institute (September 27, 2000)

Report Card on Computer Security at Federal Departments and Agencies Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology (September 11, 2000)

Computer Security: How Vulnerable Are Federal Computers? Testimony of Solveig Singleton, Director of Information Studies, Cato Institute, before a hearing of the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology (September 11, 2000)

Computer Security: Critical Federal Operations and Assets Remain at Risk General Accounting Office (September 11, 2000)

Social Security Site Shut Down by Rebecca Vesely, Wired (April 9, 1997)

Comments? (Subject: GovernmentDatabases)

[updated 9/27/00]

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