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At the state level, control of information varies widely. In some states, lawmakers have clamped down on access to government records' availability to the press and public, although they often leave large loopholes for corporate data-miners.
In Georgia, the push seems to be in the other direction. Gov. Roy Barnes last year pushed through a law laying down a three-day deadline for compliance with Open Records requests and codifying sanctions for government officials who willfully disobey.
Even so, there's still uneasiness with the availability of some records. Last year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began demanding entire databases containing the employment records for several state agencies, the entire Department of Transportation drivers license records (which were denied under the federal Drivers Privacy Act), and the licensing records for the Secretary of State's examining boards. Particularly troubling to some state bureaucrats were demands for the birthdates and Social Security numbers on those records.
A September, 1999, internal memo from a Secretary of State staffer asserts that the AJC "is building a huge database of citizens' names addressees, and all available personal information (including Social Security numbers and dates of birth) by collecting the files maintained by several state agencies. (Dept. of Education, teachers' certification and school employees, all holders of drivers licenses in the state, all clerks' court records, all databases maintained by the Department of Human Resources ... ) They may be containing other databases as well, these are the ones they admit to."
Earlier that year, staffers in the Department of Education were similarly alarmed, and a lengthy back-and-forth exchange of e-mails finally resulted in a frosty missive from DOE legal director Melanie Stockwell to the AJC's computer-assisted reporting editor, David Milliron, stating "we will not release the Social Security numbers of certified personnel to you or to anybody."
The AJC backed off the request, accepting records from which the identifier had been expunged. But, according to Georgia Deputy Attorney General Daryl Robinson, only the records from the examining boards are actually protected, due to a provision in the particular law establishing such boards. If the DOE or agencies decide to divulge such information, they are well within the scope of current statutes.
"Currently, there's very little in state law dealing with open records [restrictions]," says Robinson, who says case law on such disclosures is virtually nonexistent. Although the Open Records law specifically exempts medical and personnel records which will nearly always include Social Security numbers other places where such information may appear are wide open.
"If you've got some licensing agency that maintains Social Security numbers as part of their records, that number may well be public ... " he says. "There's not any 'bright-line' litmus test as to what's covered; it's been on a case-by-case basis so far ... I suspect there are cases where people would be surprised to know how much of their information is open to the public."
As it turns out, the AJC's intentions are less Orwellian than they may have appeared. Although the newspaper's computer man, Milliron, declined to go on-record concerning his extensive mining of other people's records, it turns out that the databases had been sought as part of what has become standard computer-assisted reporting: Acquiring such databases, then cross-referencing them with Corrections Department data to see who's been convicted of crimes. (AJC readers may recall a series last year detailing teachers who had legal problem in their past, some of the fruits of that data-mining operation.)
Paul Overberg, database editor for USA Today, says access to such records by the press is vital.
"One of the things that's problematic for journalists is that the records are still open to all sorts of commercial purposes," he says. He views the Supreme Court decision placing drivers' records off-limits as just one of many shifts away from an open society. And it worries him.
"The trouble is, journalists can't get at those files because of that law. Bad guys can get at it, private investigators can get at it, marketers can suck those files out ... but journalists can't do good stuff with it."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an organization that tracks legislation as well as legal challenges involving the media, maintains a website containing an extensive file of laws and legal challenges to the media that is updated daily. A visit there reveals a tug-of-war between information seekers and various state legislatures particularly those in Texas and California which increasingly throw up barriers to public access.
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