Public Speaking out on Privacy Concerns

Article excerpt

Fears about safety, security driving open records decisions

When The Providence Journal wanted to explore why three children were run over by school bus drivers, re

porter Elliot Jaspin turned to public records. He compared the roster of school bus drivers with state driver's license and criminal records.

The result was a story about school bus drivers with bad driving records and drug convictions, which led to a stronger requirement for background checks. Jaspin believes the story 10 years ago may have saved children's lives, but could not be done as effectively now.

Access to driver's license records has been curtailed by the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994. Rhode Island drivers, including bus drivers, now can opt to have their records closed to the public and the news media.

The drivers act exemplifies the built-in conflict between the individual's right to privacy and the public's right to know. As more records become computerized and access through the Internet becomes more common, the conflict may intensify. Some investigative reporters worry that fears about privacy-often stirred by scary stories in the news media itself-will create new barriers to public records, even as technology and the development of database journalism knock down old barriers like time, distance and expense.

"The difference today is access," said Steve Doig, a journalism professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. "Never before has someone in Rhode Island been able to access information about someone in South Dakota."

The battleground question is: Which presents a bigger danger-having access or not having it?

"I question whether the founding fathers had in mind the creation of virtual dossiers when they allowed for open access to records," said Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a California-based non-profit interest group.

The power to combine data from different sources to learn more about a person or group, as Jaspin did, is becoming common practice in computer-assisted reporting. But there are signs the public is becoming wary about how much information is being computerized, marketed and sometimes distributed over the Internet by both government agencies and private companies.

An Associated Press poll earlier this year asked: Generally speaking, do you think an individual's right to privacy is more important or less important than people's right to have access to information that the government collects? An overwhelming 86 percent said the privacy right is more important, according to the poll taken by ICR of Media, Pennsylvania.

America Online, the largest online service, felt the privacy backlash in July and canceled a plan to sell subscriber phone numbers for telemarketing. Earlier, LexisNexis scrambled to change its Internet-based P-TRAK people-finder to deal with loud objections to the display of Social Security numbers.

Privacy advocates say they not only are worried about aggressive marketers annoying consumers, but also about stalkers, thieves and radicals causing real harm. They cite the widely reported fraud called identity theft, in which criminals trick credit-card companies into believing they are some other person. Public records could be used, but identity theft also can begin with a low-tech crime such as stealing mail or rooting through trash, open-records advocates point out.

Before California clamped down on access to its driver's license records a few years ago, two cases there drew attention. Activists took down license plate numbers at abortion clinics and used motor vehicle registration records to find home addresses of women they could try to dissuade. There also was the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker who hired a private investigator to find her California address from driver records. But the closedrecords law would not have saved Schaeffer. …