Deschutes County commissioners took a baby step back from their plan to register citizens wanting Internet access to property records this week. Registration still will be required in some cases, but all users will be able to search records by property owners’ names. Rather than cutting down on what nonregistered users see, the system will expand what is available to those who do register.
The change is better than nothing, though we worry it might not go far enough.
Privacy has been an issue since DIAL was created in 1998. When the online search system was first proposed, at least one county commissioner worried that it would allow citizens to check property records for what he considered all the wrong reasons, including idle curiosity. Yet commissioners, rightly, chose to make all records public, simply requiring the system’s users to read a disclaimer statement before proceeding.
Since then, all sorts of things have changed. Some public employees, among them police officers, have been given the legal right to keep home addresses secret. Identity theft is more common, and computers have become both faster and far more complex. And some sorts of records may contain Social Security numbers or other information that would be an identity thief’s dream.
To date none of this has been a major problem, says County Clerk Nancy Blankenship. And County Assessor Scot Langton says his office fields only a few calls a year from those who believe the current system invades privacy.
The potential problem lies down the road, as Blankenship sees it. As DIAL is improved, more information will be available, and keeping some of it private or semi-private may well be required by law. The registration system will allow the county to do that in a way it cannot today. Meanwhile, even under the new system, all DIAL users will be able to see just as much as they can see today.
Assuming the county continues as it has and allows as many citizens as much access as the law allows, the registration system should pose no threat. It would be a far different story, however, if the county decided to use the new system to limit access to records simply because it could do so.