EYE IN THE KEYHOLE
Doors Fling Open to Public Records
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
For marketers in Maryland hawking wheelchairs to the handicapped, auto service to new-car buyers or weight-loss programs to the obese, obtaining the ideal mailing list requires no more than a phone call to the state's Motor Vehicle Administration.
For a fee, the agency will conduct customized searches of its driver's license and car-registration records, which often contain a trove of detailed personal data about state residents, including weight, height, unlisted addresses and medical conditions. Or, if a marketer would rather chew through the data personally, the state will sell a copy of its entire database of more than 3 million drivers. All told, it's a business that generated $12.9 million for the state in 1996.
Across the nation, state and local governments are making the same discovery, repackaging public records into easy-to-search "information products" that are peddled to marketing firms.
"There are a lot of state agencies that are saying, 'Gee, I'm sitting on top of something worth a lot,'" said Otto Doll, South Dakota's chief information officer. "It's an easy way to make money. But it can open a whole new Pandora's box for the states."
Largely unnoticed, activities like these by state and local governments have fundamentally transformed the role of public records in American society. No longer confined to musty file rooms, documents are public in a new way today, courtesy of powerful computers and global electronic networks.
Although only a handful of states, including Maryland, actively hawk their data, every state following the letter of public-records laws has opened its filing cabinets to information brokers, who have copied and computerized millions of records. Accessing that material simply requires a computer and an account with an "information broker" like CDB Infotek of Santa Ana, Calif.
A few seconds after typing the name of a Maryland resident in CDB's World Wide Web site, up pop driving records, car registrations, property deeds and court cases linked to the individual. Those documents often contain a slew of very personal data: unlisted phone numbers, Social Security numbers, physical details such as height and weight, as well as the description and value of the person's house.
The same easy access is available to personal data about residents of Virginia, the District and the other 48 states. That has allowed CDB, for example, to build a vast storehouse of personal data from public records. The company says it now has 1,600 databases, containing more than 3.5 billion public records.
Some states are more restrictive with their data than others. Virginia, for instance, does not allow access to driver's license or vehicle registration records, but it does permit businesses to tap into voter registration data, something that Maryland forbids.
The ability to search millions of public records across the country with a few taps on a keyboard has been instrumental in helping track down deadbeat dads, long-lost relatives and witnesses for court cases. Home buyers can quickly find information about real estate values. People needing a doctor, dentist or lawyer can easily examine professional licenses and other qualifications.
With electronic databases, "public records have become truly public," said Robert A. Mayer, the chief information officer for the state of Maine.
But some consumer advocates argue that such records never were intended to be so exposed. Many records contain personal details that critics warn can be fodder for con artists and stalkers, or may simply be personal and embarrassing the weight listings on a driver's license, for instance.
"If you can access all of the records from a state that are public, you can get an incredible wealth of personal information and build amazing profiles of people," said Robert Gellman, a consultant in Washington who focuses on privacy issues. "But that's not why these records were made public. It's a total misuse."
Making Data Easier to Find
Comprehensive dossiers today are available only to people who have commercial accounts with information brokers, or who are willing to pay a middleman upward of $25 to conduct a one-time search. But that is changing fast, as states themselves make trolling for personal data easier.
Traditional walk-in document libraries or public-records offices are costly to operate, what with their heating bills, copying charges and full-time staffs. As a result, an increasing number of government agencies are putting more of their information online.
Some county assessors, for example, post copies of property deeds on the Internet. Other agencies, like Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA), raise money by selling electronic versions of entire databases or providing, for a fee, the ability to search their files.
The MVA offers two ways to tap into its data files: an online service called the Direct Access Records System, used primarily by lawyers and insurance companies, and customized bulk searches, primarily for marketers.
"You can ask us to give you all the names and addresses of 20-year-olds in Anne Arundel County who are over six feet tall," said Jim Lang, an MVA spokesman. Although each record costs $5, the data is available electronically, which makes it easy to use for direct-mailing or telemarketing purposes.
Income from such bulk record sales help underwrite MVA's operating expenses, Lang said, but the department has not calculated its annual "profit" from the transactions. Only a tiny fraction of its record sales, MVA officials say, involve providing paper copies to ordinary citizens who have a driving-related need for the information, such as trying to track down witnesses to an accident.
The department's practice doesn't sit well with many Maryland residents. Last fall, Maryland adopted a law allowing residents to request that the MVA not release personal information about them, either in an individual record or as part of a larger list. As of March 1, 646,000 drivers out of a total of 3.8 million in Maryland have asked that their records be blocked.
The Maryland law is part of a small but growing backlash against data sales. Although personal data maintained by the federal government, such as Social Security or income tax records, is covered by the Privacy Act of 1972 and cannot be disclosed to marketers or database firms, there are few prohibitions on the release of personal information at the state and local level.
Several states have asked the courts to overturn a new federal law that would allow citizens throughout the country to restrict the release of personal information contained in driving and motor vehicle records. South Carolina, Oklahoma, Alabama and Wisconsin contend the measure infringes on their sovereignty.
Historically, open records have been considered central to American democracy. Government agencies also argue that the sale of records is a much-needed source of revenue. Marketers and news organizations, meanwhile, say restrictions on access to records will affect their businesses.
A convergence of interests has spawned some improbable alliances. In South Carolina, for example, groups representing the news media have asked to join the state in opposing the federal restrictions on driving and motor-vehicle records. Although some media organizations say it is unseemly for state agencies to churn out customized databases for marketers, they also argue that restricting certain records could harm legitimate news gathering and infringe on First Amendment rights.
"We're talking about things like tracking down slumlords," said Jane Kirtley, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington. "Public records are central to investigative reporting."
Blocking one government database will not dissuade marketers or con artists from gleaning personal information from others, Kirtley said. "Ultimately, we'd have to close off every one of those databases," she added. "Then what happens to our open government?"
For marketers, driver records also are worth fighting for because they contain some crucial information, particularly addresses and ages. "Public records are often a very accurate provider of some of our key indicators of whether someone might be interested in our products," said Patricia Faley, a vice president at the Direct Marketing Association in Washington.
An Arresting Situation
As the volume of records available online mushrooms, the use of such data is expanding beyond direct-mailers, lawyers and private investigators. College students, who often have free access to the Lexis-Nexis database, are using it to see if their dates' claims of age and marital status check out. Sales agents look for bankruptcies and tax liens in their customers' pasts. And human resources departments use the records to screen new hires, which is why Bronti Kelly believes he's had such a hard time finding steady employment.
In late 1990, Kelly lost his job as an electronics salesman at a Robinson-May department store in Riverside, Calif. Since then, he says, he's been turned down for dozens of retail sales jobs in the Los Angeles area, despite a re»sume» laden with sales experience. When he has landed a job, Kelly said, he typically has been fired in a matter of days.
The 33-year-old Kelly, who eventually declared bankruptcy, says he finally traced his plight to a night in May 1990 when he was pickpocketed at a comedy club. His stolen identification was used by another man who allegedly committed shoplifting and other crimes and then was arrested.
The arrest report wound up in public court files and a record of the shoplifting incident, which occurred at a Robinson-May store in Los Angeles, made its way to the Stores Protective Association, which shares information about retail employees with more than 100 retail chains. "It became clear that the stores I was trying to get a job with were using their computers to check the court files and the SPA database before hiring anybody," said Kelly, who now works at his parents' pool service company.
Kelly eventually got the shoplifting record deleted from the SPA database, but the arrest record lingers. Police don't want to expunge it in case the culprit, again at large, is caught, according to Kelly. Los Angeles Police Department officials declined to comment on the case. Although Kelly was given a "Certificate of Clearance," saying he wasn't the person arrested, that information isn't included in the same court records that can be searched online.
"It feels like I'm in the Twilight Zone," said Kelly. "I wish I could stop people from getting this record when they're looking me up, but there's nothing I can do. It's disgusting."
A record of Kelly's arrest still remains in computer databases.
"The records had not been expunged, so we reported it," said Kirby Lewis, president of Informus Corp., a Mississippi-based information-services company. "We didn't even know what was going on at the time. We screened him just like anyone else."
Lewis said that a private investigator accessed the record last year, telling Informus that the record was for a pre-employment check.
Even if officials want to delete information from online databases, it's not always possible.
In Texas, a company called PublicData.com last year paid $1,600 to buy a database with the records of about 14 million licensed drivers and 3 million others with state-issued identification cards, which the company posted on the Web. But when the state legislature passed a law last summer requiring anyone purchasing motor vehicle information to pledge not to post the data without approval from individuals, PublicData simply moved abroad to the British West Indies and kept the information on the Web.
Texas state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon sponsored the bill after hearing complaints a woman who was trying to hide from an abusive ex-husband only to discover that her personal information, which she had asked the state to keep confidential, was on PublicData's site. "This is more than a little creepy," McClendon said in an interview. "By selling this information, the department unwittingly placed this woman's life and many others at risk."
Executives with PublicData say they have a right to post the Texas data because it comes from public records routinely sold to marketing companies and other businesses. Vincent Cate, the company's operations manager, said rules on information usage shouldn't be tougher just because the data is posted on the Web.
"If people don't like the information to be public," Cate added, "then why is the government selling it?"
In Search of Middle Ground
The Texas case notwithstanding, some of the biggest defenders of unfettered access to public records are women's groups, who see electronic searches as a key weapon in enforcing child-support obligations.
"There is an amazing benefit to these new databases," said Geraldine Jensen, president of an Ohio-based child-support advocacy group. "They're usually the best way to track down deadbeats."
Trying to find a middle ground, some government agencies are selling the records but trying to limit how the buyers use them. The Federal Election Commission, which allows online searches of political campaign contribution reports, forbids candidates from using the data to target fund-raising solicitations. Twenty-four states restrict the commercial use of voter registration records, although all permit the disclosure of the information to political candidates and polling organizations.
Enforcing usage restrictions, however, can be difficult. The FEC sprinkles its records with decoy names to see if fund-raisers solicit them; but critics contend the agency has not aggressively investigated reports of suspected misuse.
Not surprisingly, marketers resist the restrictions. "Certainly democracy extends to public records," said the Direct Marketing Association's Faley. "Who's to say what's fair use of information? If charities and the police and the press can have access to this data, why shouldn't businesses have fair access if they use it in very responsible ways and they don't harm consumers?"
Faley maintains that most consumers "are interested in receiving information about products they're interested in. They don't want to opt out of all lists." Nevertheless, she and other marketers argue that people should be allowed to block disclosure of their personal records, a step the industry sees as less intrusive than broad rules restricting entire databases.
The popularity of such "opt-out" programs varies widely, but they appear to have some mass appeal as seen in surge of Maryland drivers seeking to block access to their records.
"When our open-records laws were first written, no one ever imagined you could manipulate a database with thousands of names and addresses," said Mayer, Maine's chief information officer. "The ethical discussions we need to have haven't taken place yet. Right now, we're very, very naive with what we're playing with."
Staff writer Robert O'Harrow Jr. contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company