Rethinking 'public' docs
- By William Matthews
- Jun 05, 2000
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protective orders are available in public court records, but should not
be published on the Internet, he said.