Are Online Records Too Public?

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.

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