Taxation of real and personal property requires governments to keep track of who owns
what, how much they have paid in tax, and what they may owe. Once this information is in public
records, individuals do not have the power to keep their property holdings private.
The land title system, which makes a public record of who owns land, is an invaluable part of our
country's economic success. It allows people to be relatively sure when they buy land that they
are getting full ownership. It also makes buyers aware of what restrictions there might be on
use of land.
It is a reduction in privacy that is probably acceptable: if real property owners could
keep their ownership private, the value of land would drop and litigation surrounding land ownership
would jump. Countries where clear title to land can not be passed from buyer to seller tend
to be economically backward for this reason, among many others.
Tax records about automobile ownership, on the other hand, have no similar benefit. Other
law and practices assure buyers of clear rights and title.
As more and more records are available online, citizens have less privacy in information
about what they own. There is also increased risk of mischief and crimes such as
identity fraud. This problem will
continue to grow with the demise of practical obscurity.
But open government values counsel against sealing public
records. A variety of more subtle responses are in order.
First, authorities should limit the types of property they tax in light of the additional cost
to privacy in this type of taxation. They should collect the least possible information that
is needed to assess and collect real and personal property taxes. Information from property
tax records should be destroyed once it is no longer needed. And, as a security measure, people
getting access to property tax information should be required to identify themselves
adequately and have information about their access placed in a separate public record.
This combination of responses will reduce the loss of privacy and some risks to property
owners, while preserving open government.
Property Tax Information Web site,
Wake County (NC) Revenue Department
Property Tax Database Search Web page, Office of Tax and Revenue, District of Columbia
(Subject: Property Tax)