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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

December 18, 2006 at 1:46 PM

Paynter scholarship fund

Should I raise money for Susan Paynter to attend this workshop on open government records in Seattle next spring?

In a column that advocates restricting public access to government records, she included an unchallenged quote saying that a name and birthday are “a running start for identity theft!”

The Web is big, scary and mysterious, but it’s not the primary vehicle for identity theft. That’s more likely to happen from someone stealing mail or paper files out of a personnel office.

Nor is the Web a reason to let government close even more of its public records to the public. I thought we were trying to make public information more accessible, not less.

Not to downplay concerns about identity theft, which can be an awful thing, but Paynter’s chasing a tired old red herring.

Public record laws have already been updated to block the release of information that can be used for identity theft.

Suggesting that the disclosure of a person’s name and birthday will lead to their being ripped off is misleading and inflammatory. It may also undermine what’s left of public access to government records.

A great New York Times story in September pointed out that despite all the hoopla over lost laptops and accidental disclosures personal information, identity theft and financial fraud has not increased. It was talking about the inadvertant release of truly sensitive personal information, like social security numbers, which aren’t being disclosed in the flap Paynter wrote about.

There’s always tension between government employees who want to operate in secrecy and the public’s right to know who their public servants are and how tax dollars are being spent.

For the press, it’s a constant battle to maintain open records, especially when governments try to act more like private businesses and form relationships with secretive corporations.

It’s understandable that government employees would be even more uncomfortable with public disclosure with all the hype over identity theft, but we’ve already been through this. The most recent change to the law was last year, when new language was inserted about personal information such as social security numbers.

That’s why it was astounding to see a newspaper saying “The media may know too much” without analyzing the source of the hysteria or providing useful information about the actual risks of identity theft.

What I’d like to see a newspaper do is determine whether public records disclosures have ever led to identity theft. I’ve never heard of that happening, but there’s plenty of evidence that closing access to public records is a problem.

A public records request is probably the last route a thief would take to get personal information, anyway. The requests generate a paper trail that could be traced if the information is misused.

The disclosure of public employee names and birthdays are what got Paynter going. But you can’t open a credit card account or get a loan providing just a name and birthday. If you could, then the problem would lie with the bank that issues that account.

Instead of railing about the Web and public access to government records, perhaps we should be calling for new bank regulations and consumer protection laws. That’s more important than ever since most of our personal info has already been leaked, lost or spread around.

New identity control tools are being developed by the tech industry. But I’ll bet there would be no identity theft crisis if banks and merchants would just be more strict and diligent about verifying identity.

Comments | More in | Topics: Security & privacy


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