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  • Hot Topics: Access Denied: New Restrictions for Online Public Records Databases

    Leigh Montgomery

    Genealogy has exploded in popularity in recent years for a variety of reasons, one of them being the increase in online genealogical resources. The Internet has certainly drawn new enthusiasts, who are attracted by the convenience of the vast number of genealogical databases now available with a click of a mouse. The information found in these databases reduces the amount of time spent searching through pages of crumbling ledgers or scrolling through endless rolls of microfilm, and for today's time-challenged researcher, the Internet is an attractive option. Digitizing vital records for the purpose of making them available online is a convenience for genealogists and state agencies alike, and marketing these records is a lucrative business for many states.

    Ada Greenblatt of New Jersey began researching her family history nine years ago, in March 1993. While purely a hobbyist, her research has since become a serious investigative project and a quasi-public service as she posts databases and web pages related to her ancestral towns on the Internet. Like many Americans searching for information about their ancestors, she expects vital records and other documents traditionally considered "public" information to be readily available. If the information is not available online, then a government agency should furnish it, albeit with some degree of bureaucracy. When she recently posted $4.00 to receive a death record from the New Jersey Department of Health, she received a shock in addition to her uncashed check: she would only be sent the record if she could supply the first, middle, and last names of the deceased; the exact date and place of event; the maiden name of the mother of the deceased and the father's name (if recorded). The letter firmly concludes: No Exceptions.

    It became obvious to Mrs. Greenblatt that the state of New Jersey, without saying as much, was limiting their release of vital records to immediate family members. New Jersey, a state that had previously been more lenient with this kind of information, had become one of the most restrictive states in the U.S. Even some of the states that are now restricting birth records to prevent identity theft from the living have no such restrictions on death records. Ms. Greenblatt noted, "I can understand this policy for birth records to protect those who are still living, but for deaths it doesn't make sense. It's another blow to genealogists and a big one too because of the size of its population. Indeed, New Jersey is the most densely populated site in the union."

    In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, it became known that several of the terrorists used fraudulent identities and may have planned the attacks through access to government information. As a result, new scrutiny was placed on how this data is obtained and many states have implemented new restrictions on information that had previously been considered public. This in turn brought attention to the practice of selling information to electronic database vendors, which has caused the current uproar over the availability of this data on commercial genealogy web sites.

    After an article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News in November 2001 about genealogy web sites and their links to official records, Governor Gray Davis of California, citing privacy concerns, instituted a 45-day ban on sales of these records to private companies until further review. When agreed to remove the name of any person upon request, they were besieged with emails from concerned individuals.

    By now, no one can disagree that identity theft is a serious and growing problem. In January 2002, the Federal Trade Commission reported that identity theft was the number one consumer-fraud complaint reported in 2001, involving 42 percent of all complaints. In light of the new security concerns, seventeen states have proposed rules on limiting access to public records. However, even prior to the September 11 attacks, many states were already placing restrictions on access to public information. Last year, the Texas Department of Health removed their 1926-1996 online database of births in Texas from in response to a number of complaints about adopted individuals trying to illegally contact their birth parents. They had hoped to restore the database after instituting security measures, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks, federal security issues took precedence over public convenience. After a period of review, it appears unlikely that California or Texas will reverse their positions anytime soon.

    While it is hoped that legislators are acting to protect citizens, there are concerns that the states are using the issue of security and personal privacy as an excuse to lock up information. In recent years, journalists have also found roadblocks when attempting to access records that they previously had been able to obtain online. Historically, it has been much easier for American journalists to gather information than it has been for their European counterparts. The Freedom of Information Act, which allows journalists to access government information, does not exist in Europe. Additionally, Europe generally has strict privacy laws regarding personal information. Some journalists lament that the "good old days" are over, referring to the treasure troves of information they used to access from their PC desktops. Genealogists can certainly sympathize with the concerns of these journalists. After all, genealogy would not be enjoying its current popularity if research was still limited to numerous trips to repositories and endless hours of studying microfilm.

    Finding a balance between security and public access involves and affects everyone. Measures are already being considered in many other areas, and commonly accepted procedures, such as a financial institution asking for a mother's maiden name as a password (a crucial component in identity fraud), are now being challenged. Whatever the future holds, it is important that the public is informed of these developments, as they affect not only the essential "tools of the trade" of genealogists and journalists, but also impact the most basic freedoms that American cherish.

    Leigh Montgomery is a news librarian at the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.

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