Equality in Data: Should personal addresses be redacted?

The property of a randomly chosen "John Smith"

The property of a randomly chosen "John Smith"

Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), North Carolina is currently facing an information-sharing predicament. POLARIS, their county-wide interactive web map, currently serves up property ownership information as part of the real property and tax records in the county databases. The county is looking to remove the ability to search by owner to locate land records, mainly because the police are concerned that criminals may use the system to target officers’ homes. I appreciate the concern for the safety of the police force, however theoretically anyone could target anyone else using public records. Just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean you’re going to start hitting people with it. Intentionally crippling a web service and reducing accessibility should always be seen as a major step backwards.

I’m not as familiar with NC’s open public record laws, but in New Jersey, OPRA has several exemptions, allowing the records custodian to redact personally identifiable information from the public records being released. This exemption is usually invoked to remove individuals’ names and telephone numbers. The odd thing is, the tax records do not have ownership information redacted. I’ve asked several people about this and gotten nearly the same response: “well, you could if requested through OPRA, but what would be the point?” The owner’s name shows up in the white pages, Google searches and countless other record repositories. By “keeping our officers safe” you’ve only caused those looking to do harm to take another, negligible step in finding their home address. You’ve also killed an incredible resource. POLARIS gets 60,000 unique viewers a month and has been online for ten years. I doubt there has been (or will be) a criminal case in which any family was targeted and then robbed or assaulted because the criminal used public records.

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