"What constitutes public record, public information and private information sometimes is as clear as mud. (For a discussion of the differences, see The Art of Public Records Research.) [link in article] In a recent e-mail exchange concerning a proposal for a distant education course for journalism students on public records research, one professor expressed concern that students wouldn't have access to commercial databases containing personal information. She also commented that drivers' records 'are available to private investigators, but not to reporters.' How, then, should the faculty handle the instruction of the use of such records in journalism research?
"In a nutshell, students and journalists don't have full access to commercial personal information aggregators because the vendors forbid it. Arguably, these groups would not have a permissible use for the data protected by two major privacy laws – the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act. But, just because journalists don't have access to private or sensitive information through these research systems, doesn't mean they can't find what they seek – legally."
Originally published in The CyberSkeptic's Guide to Internet Research (February 2006).