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

Public Records

Public records represent a wide variety of information that is held by government, including deeds to property and liens, drivers' license information, crime records, tax records, and so on.

Especially when compiled in government databases, public records do threaten privacy in a variety of ways. They create opportunity for law enforcement snooping. They prevent anonymity and pseudonymity. They can be improperly used by bureaucrats or released indiscriminately to the public. And, acquired by criminals, they can be used to further fraud and violent crimes. On the other hand, public access to government records plays a large part in ensuring open government. Access to public records allows citizens to monitor the functions of their government directly.

Public records have beneficial uses. An estimated 3 million people change their last names each year due to marriage and divorce, and 42 million consumers move every year. Credit reporting agencies and others use public records to track these changes and preserve the good credit records of many people, while protecting the economy from people who would hide their bad credit histories or other negative background.

Public records enable the press and community leaders to investigate and thwart wrongdoing. In the past, motor vehicle records have been used to contact people whose cars are observed cruising neighborhoods in search of drugs or prostitutes. Such records have been used by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers to uncover alcohol abuse by residents of local communities and by reporters to uncover alcohol abuse by airline pilots and school bus drivers.

Blanketing public records with secrecy is not a satisfactory solution. This would compromise important open-government values and prevent beneficial uses. Governments should not be able to keep records on citizens hidden from view. Redaction, or editing, of records is also not satisfactory. This leaves fallible government officials and bureaucracies in control of citizens' personal information and unanswerable for their conduct.

Instead, loss of privacy must be recognized as a cost of government programs that require citizens to be counted, catalogued, measured, tested, and watched. The only satisfactory protection for privacy in the case of public records is to increase citizen choice about information-sharing and reduce the demand for public records by reducing the role of government in intimate details of citizens' lives.


Information Management: Selected Agencies Handling of Personal Information, General Accounting Office (September 30, 2002)

Ranks of Privacy 'Pragmatists' Are Growing, by Mary Mosquera, TechWeb News (December 7, 2000)

Need to Know, by Charles T. Pinck, Legal Times (October 30, 2000)

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[updated 05/21/03]

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