Thursday, March 29, 2007

Privacy and Public Information

Before the Deval Patrick campaign's inadvertent creation of a searchable statewide voter registration database, someone else caused controversy for posting public information on the Internet. Author and journalist Stephen J. Dubner noted yesterday a Roanoke, VA reporter who received death threats after publishing a database that contained the names and addresses of citizens in the region who had received a concealed handgun permit earlier this month. He did it half as a public service -- saying in part that "parents might like to know if a member of the car pool has a pistol in the glove box" -- and half as an exercise to show how much of a hassle it is to get information from the government.

Needless to say, gun owners complained that this was a breach of their privacy, possibly put people on the list in danger, and the newspaper took the database down. In response to the hubbub, Dubner wrote:

This raises an interesting conundrum for journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who has access to public records — which, these days, is pretty much anyone with a computer: At what point does the aggregation and dissemination of public records cross the line into a violation of privacy? For instance, the real-estate sales data that Chad Syverson and Steve Levitt analyzed in their paper about agents’ misaligned incentives was derived from public records; but real-estate agents strongly objected to the accumulation of all these data.
That is a discussion we sort of had here in Massachusetts over the past few days. At what point does the government's duty to give us access to information end and the individual's right to privacy begin? Why is it so important to have some small barrier to get this information -- even one that would certainly not deter someone determined to use it for unsavory purposes? The drive to town hall or the fee one would have to pay to get public records seems to be like a security blanket; for some reason it makes us feel better, even if it doesn't keep the monsters away.

My personal feeling, as I mentioned previously is that public records should be public. That means, yes, they should be on the Internet so that people who can't make it down to stand in line at City Hall during business hours can still have access to information. Of course, with regard to voter rolls, the risk would be to disenfranchise those who would rather keep their false sense of security. That does not seem to be worth the benefit.

By the way, if you have not read Freakonomics, which was co-authored by Dubner, and you are the kind of person who is fascinated by data, like I am, you're missing out on a fun read.