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Privacy lost with the touch of a keystroke?

Personal info is easily accessed online - and privacy laws have yet to catch up.

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The highway is packed as you drive home and then a car swerves in front and cuts you off. You jot down the license plate number as the traffic stalls. When you get home, you log onto the Internet, type the plate into publicdata.com, and up pops the owner's name, home address, and driving record.

New neighbors move in across the street. You wonder how much they earn, how old he is, if they're married or just cohabiting. A few clicks on the county court's website and you're privy to the husband's Social Security number, details about his wife, and the fact that he had a financial spat with a local business.

And it is all perfectly legal.

Public records held at the county clerk's office or city hall have always been available for public scrutiny, but to access them you needed to turn up in person between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Now, in the name of efficiency, many counties are putting their public records online and ending the practical obscurity paper records once offered.

And that's what alarms privacy advocates. It's not just checking out the new neighbors that's at issue. Those public files often contain sensitive personal information - particularly court documents, writes Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group (privacyrights.org) based in San Diego.

Divorce decrees and child-custody cases can include accusations and allegations - whether true or not. Sexual-harassment cases can play on damaging allegations about the plaintiff's lifestyle or sexual history. Private medical records - not open to public scrutiny - sometimes end up in court documents, and thus online, if an insurance holder sues over payment claims. "It is a common tactic of companies to threaten to bring highly sensitive medical information, as well as other personal matters, into the case in order to discourage the plaintiff from proceeding," Ms. Givens notes.

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