posted Dec 29, 2000

Privacy hits the fan in N.H.
Surveillance and Privacy from Government
12/29/2000; 5:54:26 PM

'The citizens of this sleepy bedroom community hit the proverbial ceiling when they learned that their property assessment data -- including homeowners' names, color photographs of their houses and diagrams showing exterior dimensions -- had been made available on the town's website, www.ci.merrimack.nh.us.

'In a town meeting that resembled the peasants-storming-the-castle scene from a Frankenstein movie, 650 residents demanded to be removed from the site, complaining that the information would prove to be a godsend for burglars. Despite the fact that the information on the site was public record, the powers-that-be in Merrimack concluded that discretion was the better part of valor and pulled the data from the site.'

Emphasis mine. I post this because it seems to be a trend, albeit a small and subtle one: Government records that nobody cares about being public, until they are too public. This is a minor issue which will have to be addressed. I suspect that in the end, we'll have multiple levels of "public records": Totally public and online, off-line but public, and not public.

There is a qualitative difference between public records down at the courthouse and public records online. Off-line records tend to be used for focused queries... "I'm interested in buying this house, what do the public records say about it?" Online records can be for database-like queries... "What's the largest house in square-feet in the neighborhood?"  Most public records are not meant for that sort of scrutiny, for much the same reasons that we may not care that Amazon knows we bought certain books, but get upset when companies start sharing that information and putting together profiles. The ease of such aggregation of online records means that essentially, more data is available from the online records then the off-line records, and we may not want or need that extra data online.

 

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