Personal Identifiers and Public Records

 Personal Identifiers and Public Records

The Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access (CSPRA) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the principle of open public record access to ensure individuals, the press, advocates, and businesses the continued freedom to collect and use the information made available in the public record for personal, governmental, commercial, and societal benefit. Members of CSPRA are just a few of the many entities that comprise a vital link in the flow of information for these purposes and provide services that are widely used by constituents in your state.  Collectively, CSPRA members alone employ over 40,000 persons across the U.S.  The economic and societal activity that relies on entities such as CSPRA members is valued in the trillions of dollars.  Our economy and society depend on value-added information and services that includes public record data for many important aspects of our daily lives and work and we work to protect those sensible uses of public records.  


One of the areas of contention in access policies concerns the inclusion of personally identifiable information in government data. Privacy advocates tend to prefer total exclusion of such information, but many critical business and civic functions depend upon access to such information. One of the legislative battlegrounds in the digital age, personal identifiers demand a more nuanced approach than the law currently allows.  Without personal identifiers, public records about people become less accurate and obscure the truth about a person and their transactions, responsibilities, debts, crimes, civic activities, and duties.  Identifiers such as date of birth and full address are public facts (with rare exceptions) in wide societal use.  They should not be removed from public access, as they are critical to accurate identification and correlating data.  They are widely available from many sources.  Excluding them from public records will not make them private facts but it will hurt the legitimate uses of the records.

Public records are a critical source of the truth.  When open and accessible, they are heavily relied upon for advocacy, accountability, commerce, marketing, public safety, and newsgathering.  They provide a source for the truth about the behavior of our residents and licensed professionals, the ownership of property and corporations, the activities that influence the political processes, and the whereabouts of people.  In short, they mimic what people living in smaller towns and communities in free societies have known and relied upon for centuries to thrive.   Public records reflect what we have always known as a community, but only recently have we taken to electronically recording and filing such records so one could find and read them easily.  The public truth became the public record and when we outgrew towns where everyone knew this oral truth, we fell back upon the public record to meet our need for reliable and true information.  

Open public records are also a powerful equalizing force.  When there is no public source, information and truth can still be obtained for a price that is not affordable to all.  Many of our entrepreneurs, small businesses, ordinary people, political candidates, and community activists are direct and indirect beneficiaries of open records.   With direct access to open records and indirect access through the products and services that non-profit and for-profit entities provide, they can compete with those of greater means.  From James Madison to Thomas Friedman, the leveling effect of open and equal access to truthful information has been recognized as a bulwark of societal and economic equality.  The truth cannot only make one free; truth grants equal opportunities to all.

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