MINOT, N.D. — For some time now the State of North Dakota has maintained an online database through which any member of the public can search for criminal and civil cases.
When you searched all you got, though, was as sort of docket for each file. Useful for detecting the existence of, say, a traffic ticket or a civil suit but not terribly informative in terms of details.
For those, you would have to go to the court clerks and request actual documents.
Starting this year, thanks to rule change promulgated by the North Dakota Supreme Court, that database now allows you to download those documents directly, and the information included is probably going to alarm a lot of you.
For instance, the grisly crime scene and medical examination photos from a recent high-profile criminal case (I won't name it as I won't encourage morbid lookie-loos) are just a few clicks of the mouse away, as are photos of a child involved in that same case.
Is that necessary? Does the public really need access to that sort of information?
If you're the victim of a crime - whether you're still alive or deceased - do you really want pictures of your body online? Not to mention other personal information?
I spent some time over the weekend looking up a number of high-profile criminal cases from the recent past, and was able to get a lot of information about not just the defendants in those cases but the victims too.
Information I was alarmed to have access to.
This isn't just happening to the names you hear about in the news, either. If you've ever received a traffic citation or been involved in a civil matter, your home address may now be online for anyone who cares to look.
Not to mention your phone number.
Your financial information such as your income or bank balances.
Your driver's license number.
Which vehicles you own and their license plate numbers.
Even your Social Security number.
Earlier this week, while familiarizing myself with the new system, I was dismayed to find my own Social Security number sitting right out in the open. Not just a few digits of it, the whole bloody thing, exposed for anyone who cared to look at it.
I called the Clerk of Court for the relevant jurisdiction and she turned off access to that particular document. She assured me it wasn't supposed to be exposed.
If it happened to me, how many other people has it happened to?
There are two different issues here.
One is that it seems the North Dakota court system, by putting so much information online in bulk, has inadvertently exposed some information that isn't supposed to be public. Like, you know, my Social Security number.
Another is that this database has made access to information that was previously public records much, much easier for the casual internet user. We've always been able to get access to things like divorce records, but if we're going to put those records online, do they need to be quite so detailed?
I supported the expansion of this database when it was announced, but I expected the courts to be a bit more competent when it came to what they are putting online.
Two things need to happen.
First, the State of North Dakota needs to shut off this new database until they can review the records included to ensure that personal information is being protected.
Second, we need to have a new debate about what sort of information from court records ought to be public. It's fine for the existence of a divorce record or a lawsuit to be public, but does any random rubbernecker from the internet really need to know about your parenting plan for your children or how much you pay in child support or how much money your business made last year?
I hope the first happens immediately, and the second happens during the upcoming 2021 legislative session.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.