[Privacy] NYTimes: Personal Data for the Taking


[A]ll it takes to obtain reams of personal data is Internet access, a few dollars and some spare time.

Working with a strict requirement to use only legal, public sources of information, groups of three to four students set out to vacuum up not just tidbits on citizens of Baltimore, but whole databases: death records, property tax information, campaign donations, occupational license registries. They then cleaned and linked the databases they had collected, making it possible to enter a single name and generate multiple layers of information on individuals. Each group could spend no more than $50.


The Johns Hopkins project was conceived by Aviel D. Rubin, a professor of computer science and the technical director of the Information Security Institute at the university. He has used his graduate courses before to expose weaknesses in electronic voting technology and other aspects of a society that is increasingly dependent on - and at the mercy of - digital technology. "My expectations were that they would be able to find a lot of information, and in fact they did," he said.


In some instances, students visited local government offices and filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the data - or simply "asked nicely" - sometimes receiving whole databases on a compact disc. In other cases, they wrote special computer scripts, which they used to pick up whole databases from online sources like Maryland's registry of occupational licenses (barbers, architects, plumbers) or from free commercial address databases like Verizon's SuperPages, an online yellow pages directory.


"We feel that open access to public records is key to a free society," said Jason Brandeis, the A.C.L.U. lawyer handling the suit, which seeks to bar Alaska from disseminating contact information for licensed nurses. "But a balance needs to be struck between the public interest in open access to government information, and the need to protect individual privacy."

Whether such a balance can ever be achieved when so much information is already available is an open question. And some people are troubled by recent trends against access.

"I have no problem with an individual who faces unusual threats from publication of her identity or identifying details being able under the law to seek special exception from openness," said Rebecca Daugherty, the director of the Freedom of Information Service Center for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Virginia. "But the secrecy should be the exception not the rule."

Several Johns Hopkins students came to a similar conclusion. Despite their surprise at the number of records they could amass and combine, many still felt that the benefits of openness outweighed the risks.

"If some citizen is concerned about dead people remaining registered to vote, he can simply obtain the database of deaths and the voter registration database and cross-correlate," said 21-year-old Joshua Mason, whose group discovered 1,500 dead people listed as active registered voters. Fifty of those dead people somehow voted in the last election.

"The problem is, we don't know what we want," Dr. Rubin said, referring to the competing social interests in openness and privacy.

"It is clear that there are strong negative consequences to being able to collect and correlate all this information on people," he said, "but it is also possible that the consequences to personal freedom would be worse if it were outlawed."


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