Privacy and the 'Fear Factor'

Article excerpt

Public debates over government openness have played to public fears of intrusion into personal lives.

Privacy. It's a far-reaching, powerfully confusing concept. So sharp and tangled with strong opinions and emotion, debates on privacy are easily reduced to oversimplified squabbles.

Privacy protection is one of those hot-button issues that often fails to bring about a healthy discussion, giving way instead to the clamor of fear and mistrust. Politicians, privacy hawks and journalists all contribute to the problem with one-dimensional speeches and news coverage that amplify the dangers of privacy invasion. But as a steady beat of fear is sounded, voices touting the benefits of an open society are being drummed out.

Privacy is an apt and legitimate concern, but without the benefit of context, it threatens to limit access to useful public information. The conflicting interests of privacy and access to public records are nothing new. Significant measures to protect the public's privacy were made with the Privacy Act of 1974, which placed limits for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Likewise, numerous laws protecting privacy interests have sprouted at the state and local level since that time. But with the growth of identity theft and the explosion of personal information on the Internet, the debate has been reinvigorated in recent years.

Fear that personal information will be misused is something that registers very high in the public consciousness, and the government is responding to this concern. By shaping restrictive information policies, state and federal lawmakers are shielding a growing body of public records from disclosure. This has set off alarms for journalists and others who rely on information found in those records. In a broad sense, they are worried the government has overstepped its bounds and is using the public's fear to close records that should clearly be open.

It is a growing trend throughout the country. From hospital and driving records to information as mundane as home addresses, vital public records are increasingly being withheld on privacy grounds. As courts and legislatures set new standards for disclosing personal information, access advocates face the daunting challenge of quelling inflated privacy concerns by demonstrating the social benefits of transparency.

A FEARFUL PUBLIC

Opinion surveys and focus group studies show that an overwhelming majority of the public worries about personal privacy being violated. A 2001 American Society of Newspaper Editors study found that 90 percent of Americans are very or somewhat concerned about personal privacy.

The study also showed general support for the principle of open government, but when it comes to tradeoffs between privacy and openness, people are more apt to side with privacy.

This relationship between privacy concern and support for open access interested David Cuillier, a graduate student at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University. But when he set out to write his master's thesis on the topic, he found hardly any research examining the relationship between the two.

With the financial support of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, Cuillier conducted a telephone survey of 402 randomly selected adults in Washington State. The data he collected showed that the public is willing to trade a good measure of openness for privacy protection. In his study, the lowest support for access came from the poorest and least-educated segments of society.

The study also showed that people tend to support their own right to access while expressing a desire to limit the access of the news media. For example, 70 percent of those interviewed support their own access to property records, while only 31 percent support media access to the same records. For driver's licenses, the figures were 50 and 11 percent, respectively.

Support also depended on the type of record. …