Judiciary weighs privacy, access

US courts want your opinion

The US federal judiciary is asking for the public's help in hashing out the privacy issues attendant with allowing Web access to court case files, which can sometimes include such sensitive information as medical histories, personnel files, tax returns and Social Security numbers.

The dead-tree versions of criminal and civil case files have long been open to public inspection and copying. But as the federal judiciary moves into the information age and puts more of those files on the Web, it's having second thoughts about "the privacy and security implications of vastly wider public access," according to a recent statement from the Administrative Office of the US Courts.

"Creation of electronic files means they soon may be viewed, printed or downloaded, for a minimal fee of seven cents per page, by anyone, at any time, through the Internet," the statement reads. "Should electronic case files be protected from unlimited public disclosure, or should they be treated the same as paper files?"

The rude masses are invited to chime in on that question at the US Court Web site during a comment period scheduled to run until 26 January.

The issue is not a new one for the US court system: last December, the federal judiciary blocked APBnews.com from publishing the financial disclosure forms of federal judges on the Web, even though the forms were public records freely available in hard copy. The New York-based crime site filed suit, and the judiciary relented in March.

Among the options now under consideration: removing personal information from public court files; making portions of the files available at the courthouse but not on the Web; or changing the rules on public disclosure in bankruptcy cases.

Bankruptcy cases provide a particularly rich trove of information because federal law requires debtors in those cases to provide intimate financial details, including bank account and Social Security numbers, and requires that the information be part of the public record.

In the past, obtaining those files required a visit to the courthouse and paying out copying fees of as much as 50 cents per page. As the US Department of Justice noted when launching a study on financial privacy in July, "individuals who obtained individual case files from the courts were those willing to spend considerable time, effort, and sometimes money."

Today, debtors' names, addresses and Social Security numbers are available free over the Web from some US bankruptcy courts, including those in Virginia and New York.

Typing "Smith" into one court's search engine produces a list of over four thousand names and Social Security numbers from cases dating back as far as seventeen years.

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