Birth-data debate echoes national issue

By Dion Nissenbaum
Published December 8, 2001. Copyright, San Jose Mercury News.

In California, a family history buff uses Internet birth records to track down long-lost relatives. In New York, celebrity-hunters employ a voter information Web site to figure out where Jerry Seinfeld and Uma Thurman live. In New Hampshire, a deadly stalker pays an online detective to track down the Social Security number and work address of his victim.

The three cases -- all made possible by the sale of personal information collected by government agencies -- demonstrate the power and pitfalls of public records in an increasingly information-hungry society.

With invasions of privacy emerging as a rising concern, officials across the nation are struggling to find a balance between an individual's interest in protecting personal data and the public's right to know.

California found itself in the thick of that struggle last week, after the Mercury News revealed that two genealogy Web sites have posted state birth records online, providing a potentially rich source of information to identity thieves. One of the Web sites subsequently removed the data, and Gov. Gray Davis put a temporary freeze on sales of its birth database, but state leaders still face a host of bigger questions:

How much information should governments collect on individuals? Should it be bought and sold on the open market? Who should be held responsible when things go wrong?

Kim Alexander, a longtime champion of online access to election information, said the time has come to take a second look at how governments find a balance between sometimes competing goals.

"As records become more accessible through new technology, it's raising all kinds of questions about how public is too public," said Alexander, head of the non-profit California Voter Foundation. "It's a whole new challenge."

Terrorism complicates issue

The issue, like many others, has been elevated in the war on terrorism. When it became clear that most of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers had fake identities, federal lawmakers launched a new campaign to rein in the sale of personal information, such as Social Security numbers.

California's brouhaha over birth records came in that same context, fueled when dozens of natives of the state logged onto and saw their mother's maiden name -- often used as a password to access financial records -- there in public view. RootsWeb's agreement to remove the data, and Davis' subsequent decision to halt its sale, drew widespread cheers.

But, more quietly, some Californians are now expressing concerns that state officials overreacted to the firestorm surrounding RootsWeb.

Family history enthusiasts say genealogy Web sites have helped them hook up with distant relatives, dig out important family medical history and even reunite adopted children with their biological parents.

"It's the biggest hobby right now in America, and with the Internet the way it is, it's the most opportune time to start doing this," said Jeffery Schism, head of the International Black Sheep Society of Genealogy in San Bernardino.

The governor's action also sent shudders through champions of First Amendment protections.

Rebecca Daugherty, a lawyer who specializes in freedom-of-information issues for the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press, said the state should force companies to create better security protections and boost the penalties on identity thieves, rather than banning the sale of birth records.

Punishing people who misuse public records is the tack that Florida, the state with the nation's most liberal open-access laws, has taken.

"We want to make sure that we have governmental oversight and accountability, and to do that it is critically important that we keep as many records open as possible," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit freedom-of-information group in Tallahassee, Fla. "If we close access because people might be victimized, we would have to close access to all public records because somebody somewhere could use the information to commit a crime."

Identity theft on the rise

No one disagrees that identity theft is a growing problem. The Federal Trade Commission receives about 70,000 complaints a year about such crimes, and California now leads the nation in identity-theft victims.

Privacy experts say the complaints represent a fraction of the actual victims and estimate that there are upward of 700,000 identity-theft cases each year. And more than 90 percent of respondents surveyed for a recent UCLA Internet Project report voiced concerns about increased dangers to their privacy.

Those concerns have been heightened by events.

In 1999, a 21-year-old New Hampshire man paid an online detective agency to help him get the Social Security number and work address of a former classmate. The man then killed 20-year-old Amy Lynn Boyer before taking his own life.

Boyer's parents sued the Web site, and federal lawmakers launched a campaign to restrict the sale of Social Security numbers, perhaps the most powerful personal identifier most people possess. Social Security numbers are usually not a public record, though they are often available from credit agencies and other private sources.

But even without that number, Internet detectives can still scour government databases to find out what property you own, if you are registered to vote, if you're a convicted criminal and much more.

Sometimes, good intentions can create unintended problems.

Earlier this year, a good-government organization created a Web site that allowed residents of New York City to figure out if they were registered to vote and where to cast their ballots.

But the Web site also allowed celebrity-hunters to quickly find the home addresses for the plethora of stars living in the city. In response to complaints, the company decided to strip out home addresses.

California seeks balance

California has likewise labored to balance privacy with public access.

In 1990, the state restricted access to some driver's license information after a stalker reportedly used DMV records to track down and kill actress Rebecca Schaeffer. But it is still relatively easy to find out if your next-door neighbor has a drunken-driving conviction.

Information on who is giving to political campaigns is posted online by the state, but the individual addresses of campaign donors are not. Under the law, only politicians, journalists and researchers can obtain databases that show who is registered to vote and with what party. But it is possible in at least some counties for any individual to go to a county office to review voter registration data, which contains home addresses and, often, phone numbers.

Similarly, while Davis has now restricted access to the state's full birth and death record databases, it is still legal in most cases for an individual to get an official copy of anyone's birth certificate.

"It is time for us to take a thorough look at our public records law and figure out whether or not the incursions into people's privacy are really necessary to serve the public," said Deirdre Mulligan, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California-Berkeley's law school.

"Government openness and accountability are not necessarily in tension with privacy. You just have to make sure that the privacy standards you adopt take into account the oversight implications."

Copyright © San Jose Mercury News

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