by Sarah Johnson

Are Online Public Records Too Public?

Feb 15, 20032 mins

Getting the dirt on your neighbors has never been easier. As more public records are made available online, the country’s court systems are now reevaluating what they think should be kept hidden from nosy Internet users while maintaining the public’s right to know.

Certain criminal and civil courts in Florida and Ohio are publishing all their public records online. For example, anyone can use Ohio’s Hamilton County court website free of charge to see which Cincinnati residents have received eviction notices. Other courts charge for access to records, but whether there’s a fee is only a small part of the issue.

These records have always been public, but the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and the Justice Management Institute (JMI), based in Williamsburg, Va., and Denver, respectively, are questioning whether posting them online makes them “too public” and encourages identity theft. After all, a quick website search hardly compares with digging through a local courthouse’s filing cabinets.

The NCSC and JMI have published guidelines for courts to help them rethink what they post. Those guidelines suggest keeping sensitive information offline, like Social Security numbers and family law proceedings. States will have to balance the principles of the Freedom of Information Act, which mandates that these records remain public, with whether the nitty-gritty of court cases needs to be online.