Are online records too public?

The noble goal of free-flowing information in the Internet Age has collided

with the harsh reality of hackers, criminals and aggressive marketers, President

Clinton's privacy counselor, Peter Swire, said this week.

Records that could be safely made available to the public in the form

of paper documents stored in courthouse file cabinets may not be suitable

for posting in electronic form on the Internet, Swire told an audience of

law enforcement and information technology specialists at the National Conference

on Privacy, Technology and Criminal Justice Information. Bankruptcy records,

which are substantially controlled by the federal government, are of particular

concern to the Clinton administration. At present, they're public records

and can be examined by anyone who goes to a courthouse and requests to see

them. They contain a wealth of personal information, including financial

worth, bank account and brokerage account numbers, Social Security numbers,

and other financial data.

Like many other kinds of documents, "bankruptcy records are in the process

of moving from paper files to the Internet," Swire said. "As that is happening,

we are starting to ask some questions: Should we place this information

online for millions of Americans? If you're putting the actual bank account

numbers online, doesn't that create an opportunity for identity theft, fraud"

and crime targeted against individuals and banks?

The Office of Management and Budget, where Swire works, and the Justice

and Treasury departments are preparing a report on the issue for Clinton.

Swire said the administration "is seriously studying" whether to change

bankruptcy regulations to limit the availability of some records that are

now freely available to the public.

The concept of free-flowing information on the Internet was "a wonderful

goal," but it has become increasingly clear that not all information should

be as widely available as the Internet makes it, Swire said.

Hackers and criminals thrive on information that they would be unlikely

to obtain if it was available only in paper form, he said. For example,

criminals would be far less likely to go to a courthouse and ask to examine

bankruptcy documents or trial records than they are to comb the Internet

for the same information, Swire said.

"There are certain categories of information that are sensitive and

deserve legal protection" even though they are considered public records

today, he said. Names and addresses of rape victims and individuals under

protective orders are available in public court records, but should not

be published on the Internet, he said.

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