Editor’s note: Privacy and real estate are intertwined in many ways. This three-part series explores the Patriot Act and its impact on real estate companies, what the industry is doing about privacy compliance, and how realty professionals are protecting their businesses and clients.

Editor’s note: Privacy and real estate are intertwined in many ways. This three-part series explores the Patriot Act and its impact on real estate companies, what the industry is doing about privacy compliance, and how realty professionals are protecting their businesses and clients. (See Part 2: The real estate privacy scare and Part 3: Patriot Act puts a chill in real estate.)

Thief, stalker, abductor. Whatever the motive, if you live in Las Vegas these criminals have all the tools they need to target you or your house. That’s because the Clark County Assessor’s Web site includes an extensive database of public record that enables anyone with an Internet connection to search through home and property tax information by owner’s name, property address or parcel number. And what they’ll find might surprise you.

A search for “John Smith,” for example, displays all property records with that owner name. In a few clicks, someone can view Smith’s property value and appraisal record, tax information, a map that shows the area broken down by parcels, an aerial view of the home and surrounding neighborhood, the names of previous owners and a sketch of the property.

The possible misuses of this information are endless. Imagine a teenaged duo planning to rob or harass their least favorite Geometry teacher, an ex-con tracking down the police officer who arrested him, or an identity thief simply scoping out who’s a valuable target.

But it’s not all crimes and terror. There are plenty of benefits to granting the public easy Internet access to this information. Now, prospective home buyers can easily conduct their own research online. They can calculate for themselves how much their taxes would be, whether they’re getting a good deal in a home purchase, and on state Web sites, they can even verify their real estate agent’s license and background.

It’s difficult to say where to draw the line between freedom of information and personal privacy. Property value and tax information is public record that’s always been available to whomever was willing to visit the local county recorder’s office, wait in line and sift through microfiche. It’s much easier to access now online, which has transformed “public” real estate data into ubiquitous knowledge.

While the free flow of information creates a privacy dilemma, it’s helped revolutionize the real estate process. Realtors having MLS data locked up for 100 years did not benefit consumers. Prior to 1996 when for-sale listings went online, people had to visit a realty office to see what homes were for sale and what they were worth. And prospective buyers could only visit one home at a time.

Is the real estate industry being responsible about protecting consumer privacy? Take a survey.

Now home buyers can browse millions of for-sale listings after business hours online. And they can easily check the seller’s asking price against the county tax assessor’s value if the county posts those records on the Web. Borrowers also can search court records and other public documents to check their lender’s history.

But do certain counties go too far when posting public real estate data online? Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, thinks including the property owner’s name in online tax assessor records is unnecessary and in some instances, harmful.

“The main reason for looking at those records is to investigate and evaluate that property. For the majority of uses, you do not need to know the name of the person who owns that property,” she said.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group based in San Diego, has received complaints from people who’ve discovered their names in online records and want them removed, Givens said. One person who called the group is an environmental activist in Phoenix who simply said she doesn’t want her enemies to know where she lives. She’s concerned people who oppose her views, which she aggressively voices at city planning meetings, might abuse the information.

Lots of individuals have legitimate concern for personal safety when their names and addresses are available online. These include police officers, school teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, court officials, parole officers, political activists, entertainers, politicians and public officials.

“It’s not a short list. I don’t buy the argument, ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s nothing to worry about,'” Givens said.

She thinks San Diego County has the right idea. The county assessor’s Web site enables people to search for property information by address or parcel number. The owner’s name does not appear on the record online. For example, a search for 747 B St. in San Diego shows a list of property vitals including purchase price, square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms and the date of sale.

A person can search for property information by owners name in San Diego County, but the results only show a list of records that can be purchased and mailed. Parcel maps also cost money.

The backlash against putting detailed public records online will likely grow louder as more people discover the information is there. Givens said counties should weigh the benefits of having things like property owner names online before adding it, and consider what parts could be left out while still accomplishing the purpose of having public records on the Web.

The bottom line is “anybody putting public records on the Internet must consider the privacy implications,” she said.

Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute, thinks there may be changes to laws or regulations when more people realize what information is available and start to debate the privacy implications of having all public property record data online.

Having all this information readily available online makes it easy for someone to collect and categorize it in new ways. That opens the door for people to repackage and sell the information to businesses for commercial purposes.

Arrison, who’s authored consumer privacy studies, said a lot of information sharing actually benefits consumers.

“Our economy depends on it,” she said. “Anytime you restrict data sharing to a larger extent you restrict economic activity.”

She referred to the type of data sharing that comes from information collected by credit agencies and financial companies as having benefits in the long run. However, she makes a distinction between that type of data collection and the mandatory data collection conducted by the government in property and tax records.

But the debate over freedom of information and personal privacy as it relates to property data online is not “everything for everybody versus nothing for nobody,” said John Patrick, author of Net Attitude, a book that explores how cultural attitude can both accelerate and impede technological advances.

“If it’s everything for everybody, then yes-it is a privacy issue,” he said.

But the solution to giving people the privacy protection and security they want is technology. In the case of public record, counties like San Diego will choose to leave out people’s names. Other counties could implement technology systems that reveal certain levels of information, then require identification to access names.

However, counties that aren’t enabling online access to any public records don’t have the answer either. There are too many benefits to completely rule it out.

“Access: it’s the one-word answer,” Patrick said. “People today often don’t know where the (public record) information is, don’t know how to find it or may be physically unable to get access to it.”

The Web will continue to change that.

Tomorrow: Learn how real estate companies deal with privacy issues.


Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to jessica@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 133.

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