"Spinning the Public Record"
November 4, 2000
Greetings. I got a call from Troy T. Terwilliger the other day. Troy is a
fan of what might be called "radical extended genealogy" -- his whole life
revolves around digging into the lives of his relatives and neighbors.
Troy thinks the Internet is the best thing since sliced bread.
"You just wouldn't believe how the Web has simplified my life," he said. "I used to have to go down to the county courthouse and spend hours digging through index cards to get all the dirt on my relatives or the guy next door. Now more and more of the juicy stuff is just a mouse click away!"
"What kind of juice are we talking about, Troy?"
"You name it, I can usually get it! Birthdays, how much your house cost, whether you're registered to vote and what party you're in, your gender, what kind of car and boat you own ..."
"I don't have a boat," I said.
"That's not the point. Look, just by using available public records, and every day more of them are accessible to anyone on the Web, I can build up a dossier on practically anybody. Just give me a name and I can get you their home address and so many other detailed goodies about them that it would make your head spin! Sometimes I can even get the floor plans of their houses! And I get most of this information without even spending one red cent! The fools think they can hide from me by not being listed in the phone book -- ha! Hell, Stalin never had it so good!"
"Troy, isn't this kind of invasive of people's privacy? What about people working in sensitive professions whose lives or children's lives could be at risk if anyone can so easily track them to their homes? What about attacks by stalkers, or the concerns of people engaged in domestic disputes trying to protect their families? What about folks who'd use that info to commit identity fraud?"
"Oh gee, there you go again with that bleeding-heart stuff," said Troy. Most of that same information has always been in the public record for people willing to go through the effort to dig it out. All the Web is doing is making it easier to access. For that matter, for some places I can buy it all from the city or county on CD-ROM in one big wonderful glob if I want to!"
"But doesn't making so much of the data available so easily that way, for anyone to access anonymously and for any reason, really change the intrusiveness and risks of the information?" I asked. "The very fact that it used to take more work to get that stuff seemed to make a lot of serious abuses far less likely."
"Well, sure, some people may get hurt," Troy replied. "But that's just going to be the way it is! You don't really expect any changing of the rules just to protect a few people from getting ripped off, or their throats slit by stalkers? That's small potatoes -- you have to keep it all in perspective! Do you realize how many people die in traffic accidents every day? I just wish more states would get on the ball putting this data out like they do here in Texas. Let the chips fall where they may! We have an open records act in this state that makes me proud to live in Houston. We've even got more smog than you do there in L.A.!"
"Troy, you make me want to pack up and head out to join you right now."
"Man, you're officially invited -- and that's on the record!"
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