Bill would cut access to public records

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The Legislature is poised to “solve” another problem that does not exist — and in so doing deny the public access to some longstanding public records.

Lawmakers heard arguments Wednesday in favor of a bill that would restrict the release of birth and marriage records in order to combat fraud and identity theft.

The deputy director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention told a legislative committee last week that open birth and marriage records could be used to commit fraud.

Mind you, she had no evidence they have been used this way; she just imagined they could.

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Birth and marriage records have been open to the public since colonial times, and are mainly of use to genealogists and historians.

Christine Zukas-Lessard told the committee that her agency wants to close those records to everyone other than “those who have a direct and legitimate interest in the recorded event,” including those on the document, parents, guardians, descendants and designated agents or attorneys.

An Associated Press story about the hearing said it is unclear how pervasive identity theft and fraud through Maine birth and death records is.

Actually, there is evidence, and it’s clear: There is no problem.

In an in-depth story in January, the Sun Journal traced the more than 200 security breaches reported to state agencies within the past year. These breaches potentially exposed 24,000 Mainers to ID theft.

Examples included a laptop stolen in Seattle that held Social Security numbers for 205 Starbucks employees in Maine.

Then there was a World Bank slip-up that posted payroll records for four Mainers online.

There was the college in New York that accidentally printed 25 Mainers’ Social Security numbers on the mailing labels of their alumni magazines.

Among those 200 reports, there was no mention of birth or marriage records “leaking” from state archives.

In reality, there are much easier and effective ways for thieves to get even more useful information.

Two researchers, one at the University of Alabama and another at the University of Texas at Austin, have studied how ID thieves obtain information.

They did this by locating 59 convicted ID thieves and doing in-depth interviews with them in prison.

So, how do the “pros” do it?

Many of them bought raw information from unethical bank, mortgage company or government employees. Others robbed mailboxes or raided trash cans.

Few of the ID thieves had high-tech “hacking” skills, contrary to common perceptions.

And none of them — not one — had obtained personal information from any public record.

We’ve written before that our country is in the middle of an ID anxiety crisis. We’re all worried about having our private information stolen or used against us.

But that doesn’t mean we should be legislating blindly to close off important government records that have been open and available for centuries without a problem.

Charles Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, told the AP that he had no knowledge of a single case of identity theft in Maine or anywhere else involving birth or marriage records.

That should be evidence enough that this measure is excessive and unnecessary.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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