Privacy Interests in Public Records: An Empirical Investigation

Privacy and Security

Article Snapshot


Kirsten Martin and Helen Nissenbaum


Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, Vol. 31, No.1, pp. 111-143, 2017


Generally, privacy regulation does not protect the privacy of information derived from public records. However, research shows that people disapprove of the use of data from public records in a wide range of contexts, particularly if the data is derived from voting records.

Policy Relevance

Policymakers should reconsider the level of privacy protection for data derived from public records.

Main Points

  • Typically, private or sensitive information receives more privacy protection than public information.
  • The theory of contextual integrity challenges this approach, proposing that information flows should be consistent with a wider range of complex social norms, depending on the context.
  • This paper considers two types of public information: 1) information gathered from public records, and 2) observations made in public spaces such as parks.
  • Survey respondents considered it inappropriate to access some types of information (such as marital status), even when the information was readily accessible in public records; people are also sensitive to the source of the information, and more likely to consider information inappropriate when it came from data brokers.
  • Generally, most people object to the idea of access to voting records but are less likely to object to the idea of access to criminal records.
  • Younger people were more critical of the idea of access to information through data brokers, online government records, and were more critical of the idea of access by banks or employers but were more open to the idea of access to voting records.
  • Women were more opposed than men to the idea of an employer’s accessing data about marital status in job applications.
  • Some call for the access to more bulk government data in machine readable form, but this survey reveals that this would be inappropriate; additional new privacy protections should be designed for public records.


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