January 26, 2001 10:10 AM PST

Privacy group seeks review of Net access to court files

A privacy-rights group requested Friday that a government commission consider the ill effects of a new system that will allow public, online access to select court files and personal information.

"Instant online access to court records raises monumental privacy issues for U.S. citizens," said Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, an education and research group based in Denver.

The action is in response to growing concern about identity theft. Many consumers and privacy advocates are wary of the Internet's ability to act as a conduit for distributing personal data. They are pushing regulators to strike a balance that would make information easily accessible and would ensure individuals' security.

Through a government-proposed system, dubbed Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), the public soon will be able to download and print federal court case files for 7 cents a page. The case files, currently available in paper form and deemed sensitive-but-not-confidential by the courts, can contain sensitive personal information such as social security numbers, credit card numbers or medical information; they also can unearth personal filings such as divorce or bankruptcy cases.

The Privacy Foundation, which sent a letter to the Washington, D.C.-based Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, recommended that the system electronically remove such personal information within public court filings that will be available online.

"Each court should retain complete supervisory power over all court records with complete authority to deny public access to files, or portions of files, based on present well-established legal principles," according to the statement, written by University of Denver law professor John Soma.

A national commission should review how court documents are made available online as well as the dissemination of personal information via the Internet, according to the Privacy Foundation.

"A vigorous debate should take place on whether the texts of criminal and civil court case records, including bankruptcy and divorce proceedings, should be made available at the touch of a keystroke," Keating said.


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