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Home > Privacy and Government > The End of "Practical Obscurity"

The End of "Practical Obscurity"

An important historical change is underway that affects the privacy of information held by governments.

In the past, public records have been kept on paper or magnetic tape in physical files at court houses and government offices throughout the country. Thus, even though they have been technically available to the public for review under open access laws, they have been kept "practically obscure." This meant that sensitive personal information might be in a public record without creating a great risk of harm to the individual that it is about.

Because of the tremendous potential for improvements in efficiency and openness, governments will more and more be conducting their business in digital formats and on the Internet in the future. This should improve the services they offer and lower the cost of government, which is a good thing.

The conversion of public records into electronic formats, however, may end the "practical obscurity" that they have enjoyed in the past. Large quantities of data about citizens will become available very broadly. Without change in public records policy, we could see public record information collected and used in ways that are not desirable. Along with use in crimes like identity fraud, an important undesirable use may be to threaten privacy. This is a major challange to "e-government."

The value of open government should not be dismissed. It would be a mistake to close off access to public records because of the many benefits access provides. Instead, governments should minimize the personal information they collect and they should maintain information only so long as it is needed. As a security measure, those who access public record data should be required to identify themselves adequately, and have information about their access be placed in a separate public record.

Ultimately, each program that collects information from citizens and residents, whether for taxation, licenses, or entitlement benefits, should be viewed as costing not only taxpayer dollars, but small amounts of taxpayer privacy as well.


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[updated 05/21/03]

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