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Change in records policy can curb risk
Reprinted with permission

Fort Bend Herald

Bob Haenel - December 14th, 2005

The Internet is a great tool for delivering information. However, it can be a double-edged sword when it comes to governmental entities and Public Records.

The good news is that anyone with a computer can retrieve Public Records with relative ease as more records become available. The bad news is, anyone with a computer can retrieve Public Records with sensitive information.

That information can be used by identity thieves and it can be costly to unsuspecting citizens.

For instance, if a family filed a probate document in 1990 in Fort Bend County, the thought that the entire world would be privy to that document and its sensitive information - including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and more - would never have crossed their minds.

However, that can happen with Fort Bend records. The imaging of those documents and others, and then placing them on the Internet for anyone to see, has placed individuals and families at risk.

As a newspaper, we always push for open government and open records. But a dose of common sense has to be used as our technology changes. In that regard, the Internet and the ease by which information can change hands, caught us all by surprise.

While there are governmental bodies studying the impact of the Internet and Public Records, we believe it's time for legislation to address the topic with a heavy dose of common sense included.

Requiring individuals or governmental bodies to follow guidelines that include a sensitive data sheet would help keep much of the information used by ID thieves off the Internet. If necessary, a two-tiered system might be called for whereby people who have a right to see an entire file may view the full information, while the general public may not.

Regardless, the Legislature or the courts need to figure out a way to provide protection for citizens without damaging the public's right to information.

We believe a policy that protects sensitive data is a step in the right direction.

As for the information that has already been exposed via the Internet, redaction of sensitive information may be cost prohibitive. The damage is done, and there's no effective way to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

However, it does not take action by the Legislature or courts to change local policy. There are ways to cut the risk significantly if local leaders change their policies on how records are made available here in Fort Bend County. Not all of our records have to be on the Internet. In fact, none of them do. But the objective is to find middle ground that not only serves Fort Bend County citizens, but protects them as well.

That isn't the case right now, and regardless what anyone says, it didn't have to be the case at all.


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