IT Confidential: The Government Giveth And Taketh Away In Terms Of Privacy - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

IoT
IoT
News
Commentary
9/22/2006
04:30 PM
John Soat
John Soat
Commentary
50%
50%

IT Confidential: The Government Giveth And Taketh Away In Terms Of Privacy

The courts are finally overruling Internet access and getting practical about the obscurity of personal data contained in legal documents.

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines privacy as "the quality or state of being apart from company or observation." Consumer technology, the Internet, and popular culture, of course, are all in the process of redefining what privacy means in day-to-day life. So is the federal government.

One interesting, lesser-known definition of privacy is a concept referred to as "practical obscurity." The legal community uses the term in connection with the proliferation of court documents that, up until a little more than 10 years ago, were buried in the bowels of government buildings. Those documents relate to court cases, such as criminal prosecutions, bankruptcy proceedings, and divorce settlements, and contain a wealth--literally--of personal information, such as names, addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, etc., etc.

Because that data used to be relatively difficult to access, requiring a researcher's paper-bound persistence and a certain amount of courthouse savvy, for all practical purposes the data contained therein was, well, obscured. It was something of a balancing act, the equilibrium between privacy and the public's right to know.

That is, until the advent of the Internet, and in particular the ongoing program now known as E-Government. In 1995, the federal judiciary created what is called the Case Management and Electronic Case Files, or CM/ECF, system, which now incorporates more than 27 million cases and is in use in 93% of federal courts: 90 district courts, 93 bankruptcy courts, the Court of International Trade, and the Court of Federal Claims.

CM/ECF is accessible over the Internet using the Public Access To Court Electronic Records program, at www.pacer.psc.uscourts.gov. Public records can be viewed or downloaded for 8 cents a page, with a maximum cost per document of $2.40. So much for practical obscurity.

Except now, with a chorus of worried citizens' voices rising up over increasing incidents of identity theft and personal fraud, the government is interested in getting a little more practical about that obscurity. The Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the courts, has adopted amended rules for storing court documents, effective December 2007. The new rules stipulate, among other things, that court documents, unless ordered otherwise, should include only year of birth (not month or day), minors' initials, and only the last four digits of Social Security numbers, taxpayer identification numbers, and financial-account numbers. In criminal cases, only the city and state of home addresses will be included. The new rules apply to both electronic and paper records.

On the other hand, there are new forms of practical obscurity, such as the obscurity of a single cell phone call or a single search request over the Internet, that the government is interested in making less obscure. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before Congress last week that legislation should be passed, and soon, requiring ISPs to retain records of their network traffic for as long as two years, so prosecutors can access them to help in the fight against child pornography.

So what's a practical definition of privacy in the electronic age: balancing act, equilibrium, practical obscurity? It doesn't so much matter, as long as your definition is the same as mine. And the federal government's.

My definition: Just leave me the hell alone! Except for sending an industry tip, to [email protected], or 516-562-5326.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit John Soat's forum.

To find out more about John Soat, please visit his page.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
State of the Cloud
State of the Cloud
Cloud has drastically changed how IT organizations consume and deploy services in the digital age. This research report will delve into public, private and hybrid cloud adoption trends, with a special focus on infrastructure as a service and its role in the enterprise. Find out the challenges organizations are experiencing, and the technologies and strategies they are using to manage and mitigate those challenges today.
News
IBM Puts Red Hat OpenShift to Work on Sports Data at US Open
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer,  8/30/2019
Slideshows
IT Careers: 10 Places to Look for Great Developers
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek,  9/4/2019
Commentary
Cloud 2.0: A New Era for Public Cloud
Crystal Bedell, Technology Writer,  9/1/2019
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Video
Current Issue
Data Science and AI in the Fast Lane
This IT Trend Report will help you gain insight into how quickly and dramatically data science is influencing how enterprises are managed and where they will derive business success. Read the report today!
White Papers
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.
Sponsored Video
Flash Poll