Rethinking 'public' docs

Concern about easy access to information on the Internet is prompting the

Clinton administration to question whether some public records should not

be so freely available.

Records that could be safely made available in the form of paper documents

stored in courthouse file cabinets may not be suitable for posting in electronic

form on the Internet, said Peter Swire, the president's privacy adviser.

Bankruptcy records are of particular concern. At present, they are 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.

"Should we place this information online for millions of Americans?"

Swire asked. "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 President

Clinton. Swire said the administration "is seriously studying" whether to

change bankruptcy regulations to limit the availability of some records.

It has become increasingly clear that not all information should be

as widely available as the Internet makes it, Swire said in an address to

the National Conference on Privacy, Technology and Criminal Justice Information.

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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