WorldLII [Home] [Databases] [WorldLII] [Search] [Feedback]

EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report

You are here:  WorldLII >> Databases >> EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report >> 2006 >>

[Database Search] [Name Search] [Recent Documents] [Noteup] [Help]

EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report 2006

Title Page Previous Next Contents | Privacy Topics >Public Records

Public Records

In recent years nations around the world have made strides in providing access to public records to their citizens as a means of fighting abuse of government authority, corruption, and promoting freedom of the press. Today, over 70 nations around the world have adopted open government or freedom of information laws.[373]

Public records also present some of the most difficult privacy challenges. On one hand, public records may assist individuals in ensuring that a government remains transparent and accountable. On the other, public records may be converted from this tool of citizen empowerment to one that empowers governments and businesses to track citizens.[374] The United Nations Convention Against Corruption encourages nations to develop means of providing access to public records while at the same time protecting privacy and personal data.[375]

Increasingly, personal information is being harvested from public records to create detailed profiles on individuals. E-government initiatives have raised the importance of public records in privacy discussions because they may contain a broad range of personal information that can become commercially valuable. These include: government identification numbers and documents, when there is often little if any choice in their creation and information collection, such as in the case of Social Security numbers, birth records, arrest information, civil case history, criminal case history, addresses, drivers license information, land sales transactions, records of asset holdings, ownership of corporations, marital status, presence of children, employment status, and health information. Often, individuals are compelled by law to provide truthful and complete personal information to government authorities that is then placed in the public record. For instance, in order to exercise the right of marriage, in some states a publicly available license must be filed at a courthouse containing the individuals' Social Security Numbers. Public records laws are also vital to the enforcement of critical privacy rights such as guarding against the creation of secret databases, enforcing the right to correct inaccurate information, and knowing when, where, and how information collected on citizens is used.

The advent of remote electronic access to public records systems has raised the specter of vastly increased data mining and profiling. Mining a public records database soon will no longer require the time and expense involved in traveling to the physical location of the records. Data miners will be able to remotely access public records systems and use widely available software to harvest personal information. This harvesting of personal information already has had a substantial impact on individuals.

Unrestricted commercial harvesting of public records has enabled the American government to obtain detailed dossiers on citizens with ease.[376] Through private-public partnerships, several profiling companies make consumer dossiers available to the government. One company in particular, ChoicePoint,[377] has emerged as the leading provider for law enforcement and other government agencies.[378] ChoicePoint maintains web pages customized for individual federal agencies to facilitate the sale of public record information to police.[379] As a result of FOIA requests initiated by EPIC, it was discovered that ChoicePoint was selling the national ID databases of several Latin American countries to the American immigration law enforcement agency.[380] Since that revelation, several Central and South American countries have initiated investigations into the legality of the information transfer.

[373] Privacy International, Freedom of Information Around the World 2006 Report, September 9, 2006, available at <[347]=x-347-543400&als[theme]=Freedom%20of%20Information>.

[374] Daniel J. Solove, Access and Aggregation: Public Records, Privacy, and the Constitution, 86 Minnesota Law Review 6 (2002).
[375] UN Convention Against Corruption, Article 10 Public Reporting, available at <>.

[376] Chris J. Hoofnagle, Big Brother's Little Helpers: How ChoicePoint and Other Commercial Data Brokers Collect, Process, and Package Your Data for Law Enforcement, University of North Carolina Journal of International Law & Commercial Regulation (Spring 2004).
[377] See ChoicePoint, available at <>.
[378] "If the FBI Hopes to Get the Goods on You, It May Ask ChoicePoint," Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2001.
[379] See ChoicePoint FBI <>; ChoicePoint DEA <>; ChoicePoint Government <>.
[380] Documents available at <>.

WorldLII: Copyright Policy | Disclaimers | Privacy Policy | Feedback