The Public Record: Information Privacy and Access

The open public record system has been the mainstay of the U.S. democracy and economy since the earliest Colonial days. During the last 350 years, this open system has become as essential an infrastructure as roads, telephone lines, and airports. The American open public record allows citizens to oversee their government, facilitates a vibrant economy, improves efficiency, reduces costs, creates jobs, and provides valuable products and services that people want. As the Federal Reserve Board reported to Congress in the context of financial information: “It is the freedom to speak, supported by the availability of information and the free-flow of data, that is the cornerstone of a democratic society and market economy.”

The public record also raises concerns about information privacy. It is no exaggeration to say that access to and privacy of public records about individuals are virtually always in tension. Recently, however, pressures from European regulators and growing concern over the computerization of data have heightened both the importance and the difficulty of balancing
access and information privacy. The very technologies, such as the Internet, that expand opportunities for easy, inexpensive access to public records also increase the ability of the government and citizens to search and collect disparate pieces of data to “profile” individuals, thereby heightening concerns about personal privacy.

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