Are online records too public?
- By William Matthews
- Jun 01, 2000
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.