Public Records vs. Privacy. (Up Front: News, Trends & Analysis)

Article excerpt

Before the World Wide Web, public records sat collecting dust in U.S. courthouses. But today, governments considering posting documents online have found out that there are different rules for electronic documents, which, once they are posted on the Internet, have the potential to be read by anyone, anywhere.

Jim Cissell, Cincinnati, Ohio, clerk of courts, thought he was providing a public service when he moved court records--public information already available electronically--onto an easily searchable county Web site. Area residents flocked to the site to look up tax liens, arrest warrants, child support payments, and divorce proceedings. As a result, Cissell's office has received a flurry of complaints, including threats to vote him out of office in the next election.

The online database, which allows users to search traffic, criminal, civil, family, and appellate records for a single name, has enabled employers to check out prospective employees, parents to discover their teenager's speeding tickets, and neighbors to learn about other neighbors' divorces. There have also been cases of fraud committed by perpetrators who acquired Social Security numbers from various documents.

Cissell argues that state law does not grant him the discretion to select which documents go online and which do not. …