Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How public should public records be?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 17, 2010 at 11:41 AM

The county wants your feedback on a privacy issue. Officials want to know if you think it's a good idea — or not — to be able to locate property records on the county's Web site by doing a name-only search.

For example: Say you're bored at work one day and you're wondering how much your co-worker really paid for their house on the lake. Today, you can go to the county's "Real Estate Lookup" site and find that information by searching your co-worker's name.

But what if someone is looking for your home address? Let's pretend they're an angry ex-lover or a distant relative you wish would fall off the edge of the planet. What if you were a public official? Should you be more worried about someone finding your address than, say, the victim of a crime?

Here's the deal, though: The proposal the county's considering doesn't mean your name, or anyone's name, will be erased from the record books. If someone were to take your name to the Register of Deeds, they could still look up your property information even if the county decides to remove the name-search function from their site (which, by the way, officials say is an effort to protect "police, prosecutors and judges").

You know what I think? This rule will set a piss-poor precedent for the government, allowing them to hide information when it's most convenient for them -- not for us. But, that's just my opinion. Do you want to weigh in? Click here to take the seven-question "Name Search Suppression Survey."

The survey, by the way, isn't very easy to find on the county's site. Nor is there an explanation about why the county is seeking feedback, and there is definitely no mention that those in charge are more worried about public servants than regular folks. Hey, but let's raise our glass to the big "T" word (transparency) just for funsies, shall we?

Mecklenburg County's online property records are a hit with residents trying to track bad landlords, delinquent taxpayers or home values.

But the county is considering stripping the site of one of its most easy-to-use features: searching by name.

Law enforcement officials worry that criminals seeking revenge could find police, prosecutors and judges.

Officials have cited no examples of that happening but worry enough to have written a letter of concern, signed by nearly a dozen local law enforcement officials, including police Chief Rodney Monroe and District Attorney Peter Gilchrist.

Now the county is asking the public through an online survey whether they support removing the "name search" function from Property Ownership and Land Records Information System site, better known as POLARIS.

The proposal means users would have to know either the street address or parcel ID for a property. That would allow them to find other information about the property, including the owner's name.

Residents would still be able to take someone's name to the county's Register of Deeds or Tax Assessor offices and look up properties. But the ease of going online prompted law enforcement officials in August to ask the county to change its system.

Parry Aftab, executive director of online safety and education group WiredSafety, said governments should do what they can to help keep people safe ...

Aftab said she thinks the county's idea is a good first step. "I think it shows a sensitivity of people within government recognizing how much personal information about their residence can be provided online and how much they facilitate how much of that information is online."

But Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota media eithics and law professor who studies digitized government information, said governments shouldn't limit access to public records on the chance it could be used for ill intent. Instead, she said governments should punish the illegal behavior.

Read the rest of this Charlotte Observer article, by April Bethea, here.

"We will put government data online in universally accessible formats," President Obama, while on the campaign trail.

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