You may be surprised to learn that a surprising amount of your personal information is considered a public record. Public records are defined as “any information fixed in any medium and retrievable for future reference.” Public records are maintained by local government, judicial, and legislative officials, and local records committees.
What kind of information is a public record?
Anyone can request public records, and there are a variety of ways to do so. In the United States, most public records are maintained at the state level. For example, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and property records, and restraining orders are public records that are typically kept by state governments.
Some states have online databases where citizens can search for public records, while others require written requests. The Freedom of Information Act gives Americans the right to request federal government records, though there are some exceptions for classified information and personal privacy.
In addition to government agencies, many private companies also maintain public records. For example, phone companies keep records of customers’ calls, credit agencies track people’s credit histories, and retailers maintain records of purchases. While the types of information that are considered public vary from country to country, in general, anything that is not considered private or classified is considered a public record.
Here is a list of some things that are public records:
- Your full name and any aliases you may have
- Your date of birth
- Your address and phone number
- Your email address
- Your social security number
- Your driver’s license number
- Your credit history
- Your criminal record
- Any lawsuits you have been involved in
- Any bankruptcies or foreclosures you have filed
- Any property you own
- Any permits or licenses you have been issued
As you can see, a lot of your personal information is considered a public record. While some of this information may not be surprising, other items on the list, such as your credit history or criminal record, may come as a shock. It is important to remember that just because something is public record does not mean that it is available to anyone who requests it.
What can people find in a background check?
When most people think of background checks, they imagine a potential employer looking into an applicant’s criminal history. However, background checks can provide a lot more information than just that. A typical background check will include a review of an individual’s credit history, employment history, and educational background. It may also include a search of public records for any civil judgments or bankruptcies.
In some cases, a background check may also include a criminal records search. For example, if an individual is applying for a job that involves handling money or working with children, a criminal records search would be warranted. Ultimately, the information included in a background check will vary depending on the reason for the check and the resources available to the person conducting the research.
Exemptions from access to public records
There are a variety of reasons why government agencies may be exempt from public records laws. These reasons may not apply in a specific case. The court must first consider the reasons the agency has published for the exemption. This may limit the scope of the exemption. In many cases, the court will defer to the agency.
One example of a reason an agency may be exempt from access to public records is the security of its records. The physical security of prisons, mental patients, and other institutions is often at risk from information available to the public. Another reason why public records may not be released is that there is a public interest in nondisclosure. The Privacy Act has specific exemptions for this type of information.
A similar concern applies to the “conduct investigation” system of the Internal Security Division. In addition, agencies must prove that they are compiling information for criminal law enforcement purposes.
Information that is subject to restrictions on access to public records
There are some types of public records that aren’t freely available to the public. These types of records are generally defined as “information of a personal nature.” These records include things like the gross receipts for a business’s tax returns, handicapped or disabled individuals’ public records, and audio recordings of people who are dying.
Certain types of public records are protected by confidentiality laws. The California Public Records Act (CPRA) protects information that contains confidential or privileged information that is prohibited by law.
If you think that your request may fall under this category, it is worth reading up on the specific exemptions. The California First Amendment Coalition has FAQs on the subject. For example, state agencies aren’t required to disclose certain types of documents, such as employee relations strategies or internal agency documents about vulnerabilities.
While the types of information that are considered public vary from country to country, in general, anything that is not considered private or classified is considered public record. People will often be able to look you up or find information about you with a simple online search. If you are concerned about what information is available about you, it may be worth doing a background check on yourself to see what comes up.