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Identities for Sale: Governments Withdrawing Online Access to Public Records
Freedom of Information vs. Right to Privacy
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"Will the removal of public information online really help to protect people from identity theft?"
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• Online Birth Records Spark Privacy Debate

By Kimberly Powell

Update: 12/11/01

In a twist on the age-old debate - personal freedom versus right to privacy - American government officials are now actively questioning whether citizens are willing to curtail easy access to public information in exchange for greater personal and national security. The news that the suspects in the September 11 terrorist attacks were able to get fake driver's licenses and other documents from information obtained online has many state and federal government agencies scrambling to remove public documents from the Internet.

One of the most recent examples, one which has genealogists up in arms, was the decision by major genealogy site RootsWeb.com to remove access to several public vital records databases. One of the affected databases, an index of birth records (1905-1995) from California, was originally sold to RootsWeb by the California Department of Health Services and is a matter of public record. It is available from many public libraries in the state of California as well as a variety of online sources. "The index is a public record. We are compelled to provide that information [under the California Public Records Act]," said Mike Rodrian, chief of the DHS's center for health statistics. RootsWeb decided on Friday to remove access to this database, however, after a state Senate hearing in Sacramento drew attention to the Web site and infuriated Californians protested that their privacy had been invaded. The California Birth Index provides information on individuals born in the state of California between 1905 and 1995, including name, birth date, place of birth and mother's maiden name. Other related databases removed by RootsWeb include searchable indexes to Maine marriage records and Texas birth, marriage and divorce records.

Similar controversies have surrounded the Social Security Death Master File which is publicly available from the Social Security Administration (SSA) for a little under $1800. This index includes access to personal identifiable information such as name, social security number, birth date, death date and last known address for over 64 million Americans who have died (primarily since 1962). Many privacy advocates fear that the easy accessibility of such information makes it simple for people to take over the identity of recently deceased individuals as their own.

It is not just genealogy sites under scrutiny, however. Passwords, users names, Social Security numbers, driver's license information and mother's maiden names - data often used by financial and government institutions to verify identity - are all readily accessible in a myriad of databases - both online and off. It doesn't take much given today's lax security restrictions. With just a name and address some people have even managed to file a change of address notice with the U.S. Postal Service, and have had mail full of identifying information, such as bills, IRS notices, paychecks, etc. forwarded to a rented P.O. Box.

There are two sides to every story, however. In the case of access to information about recently deceased individuals - how is the information available from the SSA any different than information that can be readily obtained through published obituaries or even from browsing around a cemetery? Birth records can be easily obtained in most states by filling out a form and sending in the required payment. Even the states with laws which require you to be related to the individual in question usually only require your signature attesting to the fact to release the document. This information is public and readily available to anyone who goes looking, so is it really fair to blame companies who place this data on the Internet?

MyFamily.com received many phone calls from California citizens concerned about their privacy and, according to Chief Marketing Officer Craig Sherman, decided to take the records offline pending further discussions with the California Senate Privacy Committee, the Senators closely involved in the issue and the customers of Ancestry.com and RootsWeb.com. California Governor, Gray Davis, has ordered the California Department of Health and Human Services to stop releasing state birth and death records for 45 days while state officials review the circumstances under which such information sharing is permissible. The California birth index has been sold to at least 9 other companies over the past year, however, and is still available online at http://www.vitalsearch-ca.com/gen/ca/_vitals/cabirthm.htm.

In an unrelated move, several other popular U.S. Web sites for genealogists have also had their access cut off this week, including:

  • USGS Geographic Names Information Server - Information on over 2,000,000 places, features, and areas in the US. (This site has been allowed back online because it also provides access to critical public safety information including warning systems for natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods).
  • Bureau of Land Management Government Land Office - A searchable database of over 2,000,000 pre-1908 Federal land title records for the 30 Public Land States
  • Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System - this site, hosted by the National Park Service, includes a searchable database which contains basic facts about servicemen who served on both sides during the Civil War.

The sites have been temporarily taken down by the order of U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, as part of a long-running court case, in order to protect several government-managed American Indian trust fund accounts from outside hackers. See Key Interior Web Sites Ordered Offline by U.S. Government Info Guide, Robert Longley for more information and further updates.

Voice Your Opinion on This Issue:

  • I think that the removal of the vital records from RootsWeb is a case of locking the door after the burglars have left...Government records are open to the public under the freedom of information act so all it takes is a little research to find out almost anything that you wish to know. Yes, limiting the general public's access to certain years might slow down some of the identity theft but I think it would take much tighter security to actually stop it.  --From NancyHOST, About Genealogy Forum
    Tell Us How You Feel!

  • MyFamily.com, parent company of Ancestry.com and RootsWeb.com, is collecting comments from individuals via email and through polls running on their Web sites. They have also added a special voice mailbox for comments on this issue which can be reached through their main headquarters phone number at 1 (800) 262-3787 or 1 (801) 705-7625 for individuals outside of the U.S.

  • Write, call or send an email to your State senator expressing your opinions on the issue. This is especially important for residents of the affected states.
    Contact Your State Senator


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