Online Voter Information and Privacy

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Donny-Osmond-007Did you ever want to know Donny Osmond’s birthday, along with his voter registration status? Now you can find out, through a simple website which has posted the entire Utah state voting roll to the internet in easily searchable form. What if you’re looking in Colorado, Connecticut, or a half dozen other states? Their voter rolls are online too, sometimes with additional information like addresses.

Is this troubling? It’s one thing to post Donny Osmond’s birthday to the internet; that information is on Wikipedia anyway. It’s more troubling to post the private information of tens of thousands of everyday people, many of whom may have no idea that this online database exists.

The website pooh-poohs potential privacy concerns and touts the potential value of this information — it could help in genealogical projects, for instance. The site also points out that this information is legally available already as public records which anyone could order. That is troubling itself (it illustrates what kind of information marketing companies and others could be buying right now).

But I’m also not convinced by the “this is available anyway” argument. As scholars like Dan Solove and Danielle Citron have pointed out, sometimes structural barriers and transaction costs create a sort of informal, de-facto privacy protection, which everyday citizens may depend on. When a company acts to strip away those barriers, it threatens everyone’s privacy.

(Cross-posted from Concurring Opinions; this issue may be especially relevant for women due to privacy and safety concerns.)

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