New auditor should rethink closing public online access to records
August 28, 2008 · Updated 2:16 PM
Editors Note: Last Thursday, Feb. 22, newly appointed Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Diepenbrock announced in a Herald page one story that she would be pulling public documents off the Internet in response to public concerns about identity theft. The records will still be accessible at the auditors office.
Editor and Publisher Kris Passey, also a founding board member and past president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, immediately communicated directly with the auditor and several emails were exchanged. The following editorial was prepared for publication just prior to publication deadline and Passey subsequently received the email presented below this editorial from Auditor Diepenbrock. We present both items together here for readers in consideration that the
auditors announced action is slated for
March 1, 2007. Her most recent communication indicates Diepenbrock will remove the documents as planned.
A recent decision by newly appointed Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Diepenbrock puts the controversy between protecting personal information from identity thieves and insuring that the public has access to its own records into sharp focus.
According to a Feb. 22 The Herald front page article by reporter Jeff Switzer, Diepenbrock said her office will be pulling thousands of documents off the internet March 1, including marriage certificates, tax liens, divorces and death certificates, because they contain Social Security numbers, mothers maiden names and other personal information.
This may seem like an innocuous and perhaps wise move at first glance. Auditor Diepenbrock says the records will still be available to anyone coming to the office and so are still accessible to the public. However, on closer examination we believe the matter deserves further thought and public input and have asked for a moratorium on immediately moving the records from internet access.
The Herald article notes that officials scanned, archived and posted online 337,000 documents last year, adding that the county will block Internet access to about 34,000 of those and thousands of documents archived at an earlier date.
One of the unanswered questions is why the 34,000 documents scanned and archived in 2006 would have any of the personal information cited by Diepenbrock in the first place. RCW 65.04.080 (2) mandates that documents presented to a county auditor specifically not contain Social Security numbers, dates of birth associated with a particular person, or the maiden name of a persons parent identified with a particular person.
This particular piece of law was in fact the result of a bill sponsored by Snohomish County representatives John Lovick and John McCoy, and others, and passed unanimously in the 2005 legislature. Unless these 34,000 documents were generated by other governmental agencies, they were improperly recorded in the first place, a fact that is being glossed over.
Another problem area in Auditor Diepenbrocks position is the one-sidedness it displays. Diepenbrock said she heard from about two dozen people in the past year who cited concerns about personal information in the documents being available to identity thieves.
Two dozen may seem like a tidal wave of public input to an elected official, said Toby Nixon, a former legislator and currently vice president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. But, he said, it is, of course, a very small part of any constituency and without balancing it against other input may represent a lack of homework into possible consequences of the requested action. It may also represent an orchestrated effort.
Diepenbrock herself was quoted as saying, If you do research on identity theft, [to find] where people get that information, theyre not getting it from us. The Herald article also quoted Halley Hupp, who was identified as the countys lead identity theft prosecutor. Hupp told The Herald he had never heard of a case where the countys information was used for a crime. Its not like its a problem thats come up, he was quoted.
Why take such a radical action as shutting down Internet access then? Were trying to ease the concern of our public by removing these documents, Diepenbrock told
What about the public that legitimately uses the information from these documents and benefits dramatically from having it available online? Who would that be?
Genealogists, historians, attorneys, title companies, political parties and relatives are among the legitimate users of such information. And yes, journalists. First, to suppose that all of these users live close to the auditors office, or in Snohomish County, or even in state is not true. Online access represents a considerable cost saving to anyone that does not have easy physical access to the physical records. There are demonstrably more than two dozen physically challenged individuals who absolutely benefit from online access to these public documents.
Genealogists get accurate information for family trees, historians for local histories, attorneys for various pieces of their legal work, title companies for their day-to-day work, political parties use such information to vet candidates as do others in the political process before endorsing them for office. Journalists do much the same. And it should be said that any and all members of the public are legitimately entitled to these records. The very reason that these documents are public in the first place is that they serve the public interest. If the use they are eventually put to is illegal, there are legal remedies for that.
So, there is a cost to the public who legitimately wants online access to these records. There is also a cost to taxpayers from not having them available online. It is a cost that government bureaucrats have often used to excuse themselves from making our records available to us. Making records available only at the agency itself means personnel there have to take their time to search for the documents, present them to requestors, copy them if requested and refile them when finished.
Putting records online eliminates the vast majority of these costs and eventually will be the only way government can afford to remain open and accessible.
In summary, it seems apparent that all parties involved have not been asked for input on the matter and that no deeper research assessing all the ramifications of removing these documents from online access was done. The decision, in fact, seems rather driven by a very few individuals with a legitimate but emotionally loaded cause. Existing facts show their fears have been unfounded to date.
We believe Auditor Diepenbrock should not take the drastic action of removing the records from online access until a fair hearing is given and input received from all the parties involved. These seems a fair and rational course of action.
To contact a member of The Marysville Globe/Arlington Times editorial board Kris Passey, Scott Frank or Margi Hartnett e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.