Friday, September 23, 2005

Government Hides Open Records But Publishes Yours on the Internet

The Morning Call, in a two-part series, recently chronicled a litany of obstacles encountered by those making informational requests under the state's Right to Know law. This law, supposedly strengthened by recent amendments, is routinely ignored by police departments and other government agencies with secrets. In Northampton County, for example, County Councilman Ron Angle has had to sue twice in as many years for access to county records that were later disclosed. In one case, the County's Solicitor warned Angle that "you'd better bring a gun." In another instance, this same Solicitor released records to reporters while refusing to provide access to County Council. He later claimed he had been kidding. Voters had the last laugh.
Local government imposes hurdles and hoops for those seeking public information that just might reveal how our money is spent. It is ironic, however, that it displays a downright cavalier attitude about the records of ordinary citizens. In fact, it publishes all kinds of personal information on the Internet, and does not hesitate to sell this data to anyone with a checkbook. These are public records, but no law requires they published on the Internet.

Northampton County assessment records are published on the Internet for the entire world to see. Osama bin Laden, from his cozy little retreat, can browse through and get not just your address, but a footprint and nice photo of your home. He can learn how many bathrooms you have, find out if you have central air, and can even discover your wife's name. If you'd like, you can pay the county a few dollars and get your own CD with all of this information. And it doesn't stop there. Real estate records are also published on the Internet through a third party at For a modest fee, you can browse through all kinds of scanned real estate records, including mortgages that always contain signatures, and in some instances, contain social security numbers. This is a goldmine for identity thieves, who can use both to start lines of credit.

The Internet contains a plethora of sites like "instant detective" that promise all kinds of private data on anyone. Ever wonder where these sites get their information? They get it from local governments. As often as not, the information is free. Last year, over 600,000 social security numbers were stolen, and that does not happen without government help, even if it is unknowing.

Our Commonwealth Court recently expressed concerns about identity theft and counseled that innocent private citizens' interests must be protected against unwarranted invasions of privacy. Former Chief Justice Warren also warned, "The fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a greater danger to the privacy of the individual." But local governments, in a race to be online, make little concession for any legitimate expectation of privacy.

Northampton County is currently building a $43 million courthouse "expansion" that actually reduces the working space in every row office. This new edifice will have a separate entrance for judges and all kinds of security measures designed to protect them. While the county spends millions in public funds to protect its judges, its publication of personal information on the Internet will expose its private citizens to identity thieves, data miners, and stalkers.
Northampton County is not alone. 28% of all counties are now online, in one form or another. One such county is Fort Bend in Texas, where you could recently see Tom Delay's social security number and get his home address. On a Florida county web site, the social security number of CIA Director Goss was also available.

The records being published online have always been available for public inspection at the courthouse. But the simple impediment of requiring someone to be physically present at the courthouse is often enough to deter identity theft and prevent other secondary uses, such as marketing from data bases compiled by data miners. It is time that local government adopt some safeguards to protect the privacy of its ordinary citizens in addition to judges and other dignitaries. It wouldn't even cost $43 million. It would be refreshing to see government take as much care with your records as it does with its own.

1 comment:

Bernie O'Hare said...

This was originally published in the Morning Call as an op-ed. Not long after publication, Northampton County DID change its practice of permitting any Internet browser to simply insert someone's name and determine what he or she owns. Now, at, you need to know the street address. This should put a cramp in the styles of stalkers and identity thieves.