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

Property Records

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

Real Property Tax Database Search Web page, Office of Tax and Revenue, District of Columbia

Comments? (Subject: Property Tax)

[updated 04/20/05]

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