FROM:   Kim Alexander, CVF President
DATE:   August 24, 2001
RE:   NY Times story on public records and privacy

Hi Folks,

Today's New York Times features a front page story by Amy Harmon regarding the growing tension between public records and privacy in the digital age. The article is titled, "As Public Records Go Online, Some Say They're Too Public" and is available online at

The story focuses on a new web site,, that went online last week.

As Harmon writes:

"At www.registeredtovoteornot .com, any visitor can type in the last name and birth date of anyone registered to vote in New York City and retrieve that person's address and party affiliation. The site uses data that has always been publicly available on paper at the Board of Elections, and more recently for a fee on compact disc. Run by a nonprofit group called e-the People, the site is intended to encourage voting by letting voters check their registrations, find the proper polling place, or download a voter registration form.

"But critics say the privacy risks of such an online system may actually discourage voter registration - particularly among celebrities, people who fear they are targets of stalkers and those who might go out of their way to keep their addresses and other personal information private.

""This site in the long run will do a disservice to the people of New York," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation and a longtime advocate of using the Internet to encourage political participation. "It's an example of the kind of unintended consequences that can result with digital democracy projects."

When I visited the web site earlier in the week, it only took a matter of minutes to look up the the street addresses and party affiliations for a number of famous people, such as Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld and Uma Thurman -- they all live and vote in New York and their birthdates are readily accessible from the E! Online web site.

In response to the story and feedback from visitors, the site has been changed so that voters' street addresses and party affiliations are no longer accessible. But the larger question of how to balance public records with personal privacy still looms large.

Harmon's story describes the idea of "practical obscurity":

"The notion that public records are limited by a built-in assumption of "practical obscurity" was first advanced by the Supreme Court in a case denying a reporter's request for an F.B.I. rap sheet that compiled conviction records from several states because it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Although the individual records were public, the court ruled that they were in a sense protected by the barriers of time and inconvenience involved in collecting them.

"The precedent of limiting public access to sensitive personal information collected in government records was further endorsed by the Supreme Court last year when it upheld a 1994 federal statute limiting the rights of states to sell individuals' motor vehicle registration information without consent.

"Now, privacy advocates argue, public records laws need to be re- examined in light of the removal of such physical limitations as time, distance and expense.

"At the time many of the public records laws on the books came about there was no need to build privacy safeguards in because there was no threat," said Deirdre Mulligan, director of the Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley's law school. "Now people are being forced to say those government records contain some exceedingly detailed information about people's personal lives, and the cost of public participation, certainly in elections, is not appropriately going to be paid with our privacy.""

Hopefully this story will help more voters become aware that their voter registration data is not private. Political campaigns and data marketeers have been gathering voter registration data for years to create voter profiles and precisely target their message to voters. At the least voters need to be fully informed that their voter registration information is public record when they register to vote. And ultimately, voters shouldn't be put in the position where they have to balance their personal privacy against their desire to vote.

As always, your thoughts and feedback are welcome.

-- Kim Alexander, California Voter Foundation, (916) 452-7706,

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This page was first published on August 24, 2001 | Last updated on August 24, 2001
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