MINOT, N.D. — On Tuesday, the North Dakota courts decided to take down a new online court document system after critics, including myself, pointed out that it was exposing sensitive information.
Things like Social Security numbers, financial information, medical records and gruesome crime scene photos.
Despite the move, I'm still getting emails from readers upset that this happened. One woman sent me a message Tuesday evening saying her husband's medical records had been online. In another note, a mom pointed out that her son's medical records had been exposed to the internet and she wondered if that was a violation of state or federal medical privacy laws.
I am but a lowly blogger, and unqualified to say whether those laws were violated or not and if they were to what degree the court system can be held accountable.
I will say, just because the courts put a lid back on this can of worms, that doesn't mean the worms aren't still wiggling. There may yet be consequences for those of us who had their private information exposed and it would be nice if the courts could tell us what they're prepared to do to help protect us.
There is also still the question of how we can get court records online, because despite how poorly they've handled it, the original goal the courts had in trying to put these records online is a good one.
"If something's public, we shouldn't have artificial barriers that say we're going to make it really uncomfortable for you to go get something you're entitled to," court administrator Sally Holewa told the Bismarck Tribune.
She's right. Public records are public, and we should do everything we can to make the public's access to them as easy as possible, though we need to balance that access with prudent privacy protections.
So how do we get there from here?
The courts probably need to resign themselves to keeping these records offline until the next Legislative session, which will begin in January 2021. At that session, lawmakers need to write some new rules for what sort of information in criminal and civil records should be public.
That's an obvious answer for some of the records which were exposed last week. Things like Social Security numbers and medical records clearly should never, ever be available to the public with a few clicks of the mouse.
Other questions will be harder. If you get a speeding ticket, should your home address or phone number or vehicle license plate number be part of the public record? If a law enforcement officer requests a search warrant, how should that be disclosed?
Our current laws and rules may have been sufficient in an era where getting these records meant traveling to a courthouse, or at the very least, communicating with a clerk to get them mailed or emailed, but the internet has changed things. Not only can these records be accessed by anyone online, but nothing is stopping third-party companies or organizations from scooping all of this data up and using it for their ends.
We need new laws and new rules.
We also need to think about whether or not we should ever put the old records back online. When I spoke with Holewa earlier this week, she told me there was no practical way to go back through the roughly 160,000 court files created every year to verify there is no inappropriate exposure of personal information.
She's probably right. So maybe we don't need to put those files online. Perhaps, when we create the new rules, we need to apply them to new records going forward and leave the old data to be accessible only under the scrutiny of court clerks.
That way, we can move forward to a more transparent future while minimizing the potential harm to our privacy.
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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.