Public documents should be as accessible as possible

An editorial from The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — When it comes to managing public records, the digital age can make things easier and harder at the same time.

The Internet gives government many opportunities to make records more accessible to the public, but new privacy and security issues can pop up, too.

The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office has wrestled with both issues this summer.

A number of years ago, the office added a searchable database of documents on business licenses, articles of incorporation and other filings. That easy reference became popular with law firms, businesses, the media and other members of the public.

But earlier this summer, a St. Albans business woman noticed that her Social Security number was visible on the PDF of one of those business filings. Today, the office would not call for a Social Security number on such a filing, but this document was an older form from 2008.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant not only had that image removed from the website but also pulled down most of such filings as a precautionary step to make sure that sensitive information was protected. That was a reasonable temporary step, but it was not a long-term solution because requests for the information were still coming in.

The office was not able to “scrub” years of records for private information right away, so staffers were reviewing the documents as they were requested. Sometimes that could mean going through hundreds of pages, and the process was pulling office employees away from other work, spokesman Jake Glance told the Charleston Gazette.

So, the office announced it would be charging a fee to find the document, review it and send it out — $5 for an email version and $10 for a fax.

Not surprisingly, that idea was unpopular…

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