Monday, August 4, 2008

Public Records See Even More Light

The August 3 New York Times reported the release of a new web site, The free site (supported by advertising) compiles criminal record databases from all 50 states and several thousand counties. The site allows an informal "background check" of individual names, as well as a sex-offender search by neighborhoods.

The original version of the site, in late July, included a controversial "Neighborhood Watch" section, compiling results for all known offenders--down to traffic violations-- living near a specific address; this has since been revised to include only registered sex offenders. (Durham city residents can generate a similar "neighborhood watch" map-- albeit only for reported incidents of specific crimes, not for addresses of offenders-- at the Durham Crime Mapper.) represents a growing trend of making public records even more freely accessible online, raising concerns from privacy advocates. In the past, "public" records were frequently available only at the government office which collected and maintained them, and could be inspected only on-site during business hours. As the Internet grew in size and audience, public records search sites like Accurint and Intelius began to emerge, but generally required registration and payment, in part to deter casual snooping (or even stalking). Now, it's common to find online databases of state employee salaries, how much your neighbor paid for her house, or whether your children's school cafeteria is as clean as it should be.

But is increased transparency always a good thing? Don't ask us; we're too busy figuring out how our friends really spent their vacation in Las Vegas.