Early next year the federal government will release proposed regulations that journalists expect will restrict access to state birth and death records.
The National Center for Health Statistics is drafting minimum standards for vital records in response to a mandate in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The standards are intended to prevent identity theft, and states would be required to implement the federal regulations.
In 2005 the Federal Trade Commission received 255,565 complaints of identity theft nationwide. Terrorists steal identities to avoid watch lists, assimilate into society by obtaining jobs, bank accounts and identifying documents, and to raise money, said Sandra Hoffman, Interim director of the Identity Theft Partnerships in Prevention at Michigan State University. Along with other government documents, birth certificates are used to steal identities, she said.
While journalism groups agree that identity theft prevention is important, restricting access to vital records would impede the work of journalists, medical researchers, genealogists and archivists, according to The Sunshine in Government Initiative. "While we recognize legitimate concerns about protecting against identity theft or fraud, we believe it is important that these concerns be weighed against the importance of the public's right to access information held by the government," the group wrote in a letter to the National Center for Health Statistics.
When Indiana officials accidentally swapped the identities of two Taylor University students involved in a car accident, death records and the coroner's report were essential to reporters trying to determine how the mistake occurred. Reporters also use birth and death records for fact checking purposes. For medical researchers, the documents are imperative for tracking trends in human health, including infant mortality rates and disease clusters.
The Sunshine in Government Initiative said that states can protect citizens' identities and open records by offering informational copies of birth and death records. After reviewing motor vehicle licensing procedures in every state, the initiative found that certified copies of birth certificates are required nationwide. The same is true for obtaining a social security number.
But informational copies can be used to obtain certified birth certificates, said Garland Land of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information System. Once a terrorist obtains a birth certificate, that document can be used to obtain a passport, credit card or driver's license. But Land did say the NCHS is hoping to achieve a balance between security and access for appropriate use of vital records.
The initiative said that by 2008 states are required to implement strict procedures to authenticate identity documents. Those procedures should make it impossible for anyone to use an informational birth certificate to obtain genuine documents.
In fact a very small percentage of complaints about identity theft assert that identifying documents were faked. In 2005, 2.7 percent of identity thefts complaints included forged or illegally issued driver's licenses, social security cards or other government documents. The majority of complaints were for credit card, bank and telephone or utility charges.
"The U.S. government makes a lot of noise about preventing identity theft, but restricting or removing access to these basic public records is not the answer. It's just a smokescreen," said David Carlson, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"If Washington truly wants to solve this problem, enacting some real regulations about how businesses -- and government employees -- can use, trade, sell and even carry around Americans' personal information on laptops would have much greater success. So would enacting truly severe criminal penalties for anyone caught using another's identity or credit card or enforcing existing laws that make it illegal to use Social Security numbers for identification.
"Birth and death records are among the most basic of public records. They are used by children trying to track their birth parents, by families researching their genealogy, by scientists tracking health trends, by journalists, and in a hundred more legitimate ways. Restricting access to them to solve identity theft is like closing up an entire library because a book was stolen."
The draft regulations are expected to be issued by January 2007. A 60-day public comment period will follow. Once regulations are officially adopted, states will have two years to adopt the new policies.
What can Sunshine Chairs do?
In a time of uncertainty regarding records releases, it’s important for reporters to have current and accurate information about state Sunshine Laws. SPJ Chapter and Sunshine chairs can research local death and birth records release policies and distribute them to SPJ members.
After researching state statute, The Indiana Coalition for Open Government found that its state keeps three types death records, two of which are available by records request. Their Sunshine Report emphasized the importance of citing the correct statute to obtain a death record, as the records all have similar names. The group created an exemplary web page with all of the information, which can be viewed at http://www.indianacog.org/sunshinestory_taylor.html. Chairpersons can also organize local SPJ members to write letters regarding the importance of keeping birth and death records public. Once the proposed policy changes are released, the NCHS will accept public comment. The FOI committee will provide a list of talking points at that time, that chairs can distribute to members to encourage comment.
To provide comment before the proposed regulations are released, mail letters to Delton Atkinson, Division of Vital Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, 3311 Toledo Rd. Room 7315, Hyattsville, MD 20782.
Meghan E. Murphy is the editor of the Clear Creek Courant in Idaho Springs, Colo. and a member of the Colorado Pro Chapter of SPJ.