Today’s question: If the government collects information about you, and makes it public to some people, does that mean it has to make the same data available to everyone?
If the question looks familiar it’s because it was the subject of a post I made last week about mugshots and arrest data that a mugshot website wanted to place on the web (so it could then charge people to take the information down). That answer, according to New York trial judge interpreting a local statute, was no due to the privacy interests of the arrestees.
The post gave rise to a spirited debate in the comments on the issue of whether a government could selectively decide who to disclose this semi-pubic data to. In other words, is there such a thing as semi-public data?
And now, just days later, the United States Supreme Court has weighed in with a similar issue. This time it deals with data about the citizenry from departments of motor vehicles. That data is available to attorneys, but not the general public, under a litigation exception in the law..
In Maracich v. Spears, enterprising lawyers figured they could mine the DMV data of South Carolina to find potential clients for a class action against certain car dealers claiming the dealers violated state consumer potection laws.
But not so fast, sayeth our highest court. Just because some people can get the data (lawyers involved in litigation) doesn’t mean anyone can get it simply because they want to solicit others for a lawsuit. Those folks were not involved in litigation, they were trying instead to drum up business to start litigation. In other words, the Supreme Court says that the idea of semi-public information is not a problem.
These were, of course, different statutes being interpreted; the first being New York’s Freedom of Information Law and the second a federal motor vehicle law designed to protect drivers from exposure of private information. But both dealt with issues of privacy for individuals regarding data that the government had, and in both cases that data was being protected from public dissemination the statutes that the courts enforced.
The various governments we elect and live under have tons of data on us, of course, and the issue of what to disclose and who can access it is an ongoing issue. Who really wants to government, after all, to release all of our social security numbers, tax returns and Medicare records? And yet, sometimes that data can come out, either in individual or aggregated forms to those doing studies.
But just because the government has data that might be public doesn’t mean the public gets it. The privacy rights of the public sit there on the other side of the scale.