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Too Much Information? Critics Decry Sites That Mine Public Data

If you want to know the names of people in Tennessee who have permits to carry concealed weapons ... or the folks who contributed their money in support of California's ballot measure to ban gay marriage ... the answers are just a few keystrokes away.

And that's too close for comfort, some privacy law experts say.

To some, it's all about the public's right to know. But for others, it's too much information. Transparency, they say, can lead to intimidation, harassment and even death threats.

Increased listing of public information by political activists and media organizations has led some to question whether posting data made public through state campaign finance disclosure laws and other methods exceeds the public's right to know.

Some also fear that the burgeoning pool of public information will ultimately discourage people from participating in the political process — precisely what the regulations were intended to promote.

In Memphis, Tenn., executives at the daily newspaper The Commercial Appeal said they received as many as 600 e-mails per day and dozens of phone calls after they posted a database on their Web site that listed every resident who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon in the state.

"Maps to [the executives'] houses, with ominous warnings, had been posted online," Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck wrote in an article defending the newspaper's decision.

Peck, who did not respond to numerous requests for comment, cited public safety as a key reason the newspaper decided to produce the database.

"It's a tiny bit of local information, and we're in that business of gathering and distributing local information," Peck wrote. " … But there isn't much room to go back on this mixing of news in print with data online. If it's not The Commercial Appeal doing this, then it will be Google or a hundred Web sites."

One such Web site, eightmaps.com, provides a "mash-up" of a Google map and the names and ZIP codes of people who donated to California's Proposition 8 ballot measure. In some cases, even the donor's employer is provided.

Several supporters of Prop 8 told FOXNews.com last month that they expected harassment to continue after a federal judge denied a request to keep private the names of donors to the initiative. One donor who gave $30,000 to support the measure recalled a voicemail he received saying, "What goes around comes around, and now you're going to experience the comes around part."

Some legal experts say they expect hundreds of Web sites like eightmaps.com to appear, and that federal legislation will be needed to control the mining of public data.

"Just because it's public information doesn't mean it should be aggregated and shared. This is a problem," Dr. Anita Allen, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, told FOXNews.com.

Allen said she could envision lawsuits arising from the Commercial Appeal's database. While the information listed is indeed public, she said, it's scattered in various public sources, giving it "practical obscurity."

"If you can show a direct, causal link between the posting of that data on the Web site and a crime, I could imagine liability," she said. "If I were a personal injury lawyer, I would consider accepting such a case."

John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said no instances of threats or intimidation have been reported by his members in connection with the newspaper's database, but he cited a "tremendous" amount of anti-gun owner activity on local blogs.

"The public disclosure is clearly driven for either intimidation purposes or as a general deterrent, saying unless you don't want to see your name, don't get a gun permit," Harris told FOXNews.com. "Is it more destructive than relevant?"

The potential for harm has led State Sen. Mark Norris to introduce a bill that would make it illegal to disclose the names of people who have permits to carry concealed weapons.

"This is going to be a catalyst, at least in Tennessee, to force the passage of legislation to make this information confidential and protected," Harris, a Republican, said. "We feel certain the state Senate will pass it quickly."

But some privacy law experts say that a "true threat" must be established for such a site to be held liable, and they cite a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2002 that shut down the Nuremberg Files, a Web site that published the names, addresses and telephone numbers of abortion providers.

"Absent that, publishers are free to republish public information," said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology's information privacy programs. "If it appears in the public record, courts will likely not intervene."

Hoofnagle continued, "This is the modern problem of public records. They are public, but they exist in practical obscurity. It's much like how music companies didn't foresee that consumers would rip CDs. It was thought that their sheer size would make ripping CDs impractical. Something similar happened with public records."

Despite calls since 2002 by privacy experts like George Washington University Law School Professor Daniel Solove to analyze the constitutionality of public record systems and problematic digital biographies, the problem remains largely unabated, legal experts say.

"We need to rethink our notions of public versus private," Allen said. "Maybe we need to put a privacy cloak around even more public data. If you really want to attack this problem, you might want to think about a federal law about mining public data."

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