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Guest Thinkers

Publicly available v. readily accessible

The authors of Blown to Bits, an absolutely superb book on life ‘after the digital explosion,’ note that

There is a difference … between ‘public’ and ‘readily accessible.’

Public records such as real estate transfers, birth records, and business transactions often contain sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, mother’s health information, credit card numbers, voter registration, fingerprints, professional occupations, and the like. While these data technically always have been available to the public, the difficulty of sifting through the paper records made large-scale aggregation and use nearly impossible.

What happens when those public records get digitized, however? What happens when public databases become easily accessible? What happens when paper records are turned into searchable text via optical character recognition and/or tagging? Or, as the authors, note, what happens when all of this public information gets merged with commercial marketing databases?

As the controversy here in Iowa shows, we need to do some tough thinking on this topic. Just how ‘public’ do we want our public records to be?

A few useful resources


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