Sunday, May 4, 2008

Private Information in Court Documents

As described in a pair of articles (here and here) from Computer World, privacy advocate Betty "BJ" Ostergren has been campaigning to have personal data removed from California court websites. BJ claims that she has turned up "complete tax filings, medical reports pertaining to cases handled by the court, and images of checks complete with signatures as well as account and bank-routing numbers" on the court's website. Further, she says that it's possible to retrieve similar documents by entering popular last names at random. The response to this from the court's personnel - that they have tens of millions of documents and finding personal information among them is like looking for a needle in a haystack - is not encouraging. Essentially, everyone who comes into contact with their system is defended through "security through obscurity," and there's nothing that they can do about it.

The question then, is whether the posting of thousands, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands, of documents containing personal information to the court's website is a problem. As it happens, in my opinion is isn't. I think it is a huge benefit to society for courts to make filings publicly available. Indeed, full access to court records gives people the option of finding out how courts have handled various types of scenarios so that they can plan their actions accordingly. This ability to know (and therefore follow) the law is an indispensable aspect of any system where rule of law is taken seriously. If a court makes tens of millions of document available, I'm not at all surprised that some small percentage of them include information which shouldn't be made publicly available. Certainly that's regrettable, but I think it's a small price to pay for making courts and the law available to all.

Does that mean I think the status quo is optimal? No. I think the response from the court is totally inappropriate. The correct response would have been to to redact the personal information from the identified documents. Even then, the system wouldn't be perfect, since there's no guarantee that personal information would be discovered by privacy advocates who report it to court personnel rather than by criminals who would use it in identity theft. However, it doesn't make sense to expect any system to be perfect, and shutting down something so clearly positive as public access to court filings because they don't perfectly protect privacy would be a terrible mistake.

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