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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 12, 2007 12:24 PM. The previous post in this blog was Say hello to Penryn. The next post in this blog is Will the Interstate Avenue rename be illegal?. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.



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E-mail, Feeds, 'n' Stuff

Monday, November 12, 2007

Take another little piece o' my privacy

It's bad enough that with tools like Portland Maps and Google Maps, someone can see your house in both a satellite view and a street view from any internet-connected computer anywhere in the world. But if you're a homeowner, now the City of Portland has made it easy for nosy viewers to determine that the property they see on the screen belongs to you.

An alert reader pointed this out to me in an e-mail message this morning. The reader writes:

I was surprised last night with a new feature on Portland Maps -- they now have the owner's names and addresses listed. Here's one, for example:

If you click on the Owner Info (Privacy) link that's shown above the names, you'll be able to read a long explanation about how the "city ombudsman" asked for this, it's legal, it's a public record with the county anyway, etc. But they put this in place in the stupidest way possible, with no safeguards from web crawlers or anything else that would be able to assemble a reverse directory, such as the protection feature that asks you to type in some distorted numbers that it puts in an image (I can't remember what this is called but you probably know what I'm talking about). So as a result, I can associate the name of the circuit court judge across the street with his house, or for that matter, my name with my house. (I've had a death threat for some legal land use appeal activities a while back, and my wife is a social worker with criminally insane adult males, so we're unlisted.)

I rank this on par with the release of the DMV motor vehicle registration database quite a few years back. And once the cat's out of the bag, it's impossible to go back -- recall some recent identity thieves have been caught with copies of that database on their computer.

It's probably already well known among those we'd rather not have such information so easily available, and so there's no harm in blogging it. It's already done.

Comments (24)

BTW, before anyone else points this out, the house used an example above reportedly no longer belongs to Erik Sten.

So maybe you can update your readers with the new, improved Sten house? In the West Hills, yes?

It would be nice to see how well our Community Leaders are improving their life style, especially the house size, location, etc. Irvinton to the West Hills is a nice upgrade.

So maybe you can update your readers with the new, improved Sten house? In the West Hills, yes?

I can't, without paying a fee... yet. But once the robots get through crawling Portland Maps, someone will have that information readily available.

One obvious problem is that the ownership information is not updated in real time. On the tapes being used by the city, Opie's old house is still listed under his name, and I suspect he's not yet listed as the owner of his new place.

BTW, the homes in Irvington are mostly wonderful. Moving to the west side may or may not be an upgrade.

Is this not common knowledge in GIS systems? Clark County had this in place long before the missus and I purchased our home. I haven't bothered to check other counties or cities, but it seems that any web-bound GIS system is going to display the same basic information.

any web-bound GIS system is going to display the same basic information.

Until recently, the City of Portland site did not have owner information on the maps.

I don't like that at all! I had all my links on google and yahoo taken off (the internet thinks I don't exist) which is fine with me due to my job as well. Do you know how we can get that off the site?? I have received death threats through my job, and I DON'T like them publishing this. Help!

I think eventually, everyone will set up some sort of limited liability company or other fictional entity to hold the title to his or her home. That way, when you go to property tax records, it will say "XYZ Holding Co." or something like that. I'll bet the real bigshots do this already.

"BTW, the homes in Irvington are mostly wonderful. Moving to the west side may or may not be an upgrade."

Erik's address is easy to find and if you look at the place on Microsoft Live, it has a pool and is aout 5K sqft, so if nothing for the same spec it is cheaper thatn Irvington.

having an LLC own all your property is smart idea for the privacy concerned. also, you can put your address as PO box when you are getting title for the house.

the name on title IS public information. anyone could find out that information at the city records anyway. the only difference is that its easier to find out now.

i don't have much of a ciminal mind i guess. trying to figure out how much of an advantage an identity theif gets by this release of information.

i've been using the owner names to (finally) remember the names of my neighbors. (is our neighbors name larry or jerry? i forget!)

As George mentions above, if this is publicly available info, what's wrong with having it online, as opposed to in a book down at City Hall or library what have you?

It's not private information, so why should we make it hard to find?

If it were taken offline it would only stop the lazy stalkers.

That was hashed out pretty thoroughly when the kid put the whole Oregon DMV records on line. There's a concept known as practical inaccessibility (or some similar term), whereby public information, although legally available, as a practical matter can't be accessed easily. When practical inaccessibility is eliminated (such as by having the data assembled by a robot and made easily reachable), the reaction is usually that the information is made legally secret again, as it was with the DMV records. Folks with legitimate interests in seeing that data wind up losing out.

What I find interesting is how some counties put so much information up on the web, and other don't. Marion Cty doesn't have its property tax information available to the general public. You have to register, provided a legitimate need for the information, and, hold your breath now, PAY A FEE.

I think it is a great idea to have the names of property owners listed on Portland Maps.

A few years ago let you SEARCH by the owners name. They first took the feature away, but there was still a way to access it for about 6 months, at which point they totally removed the owners name.

I did notice a month or so ago that the name was put back as just information, you can't search on it at this point.

Are you sure that Erik doesn't still own that house? PortlandMaps data appears to be updated within a month or so of a transaction, so unless he moved really recently that data should still be accurate.

Hmmmm... fascinating! They do have both his fancy new place and his older place both under his name. Maybe Opie has the old one paid off and is holding onto it for the appreciation. The guy and his wife must have some sweet income coming in from somewhere other than his city gig, that's for sure.

I think it's great. I can't wait to write the slumlord owners of the dumpy rental next door. I see they live in Lake O.

I was surprised to see names listed back in October when I was looking up my property to see if any new info had been listed. This is a huge issue with public info and GIS info being easily accessible from any computer via the internet. It is one thing to be able to access "public information" by going down to City Hall or the courthouse and by sitting in your living room behind your private walls and private computer. I wrote the City expressing my concern that the first time I ever heard anything about this was after they listed my name...This was the canned email response I received:

Thank you for your message. I appreciate the concerns you raised over privacy and the fact that names are accessible. After much review, it was found that the names of property owners are public records under current state law and have been available to anyone calling or visiting Multnomah County offices. In some cases, the names were provided by calling the City as well. Our office made the recommendation to include names to the City's Bureau of Technology Services who, after obtaining approval from Multnomah County and the Mayor's Office, accepted the recommendation and made the change. Out of concern for personal safety, the decision was made to allow a search by property address only and NOT by name. This prevents someone from finding where a person lives by knowing their name. It was generally believed that by avoiding the ability to search by name, the privacy and safety concerns would be addressed. That said, if the City Council wishes to review the issue further, they have the ability to do so.

I hope this explanation is of some help, particularly knowing that the program does not allow a search by name.

Thank you, Michael Mills

Michael Mills, Ombudsman
Auditor's Office, City of Portland
1221 SW 4th Ave, Rm 140
Portland, OR 97204-1900
(503) 823-4503

An interesting point is that this is not just limited to Portland and Multnomah county... Portland maps also displays neighboring cities/counties and the owner info. Not sure if that info is (or should be) in their area of influence or not.

yep- we live in Lake Oswego and there we are in living color....we may live in Clackamas County but our info is there for anyone to see. I like the idea of having to pay a fee to get personal info-this seems like a huge invasion of privacy to me. No wonder we get so much junk mail-our phone may be unlisted but our address/name are there for anyone to obtain and it probably isn't that hard to produce a neighborhood list ...

The Portland Ombudsman has effectively made the decision that the City of Portland can determine the accessibility of public information about my home in Hillsboro, Washington County, contrary to my county's policies.

Washington County does not make the information similarly publicly available at their on-line GIS service. I will most certainly be pursuing this issue.

Thank you for the head's up.

Beyond the property tax information, anyone that has an interest in real property has documents recorded, and easily found -- deeds showing the amount you paid, trust deeds showing the amounts you owe. It always surprises me when accessibility to this surprises people. You can also get pretty ready access to all court cases, which go from criminal and civil cases all the way down to parking tickets and small claims actions.

It always surprises me when accessibility to this surprises people.

It's not public accessibility that is at issue, Jonathan. It's the EASE of public accessibility. Sure, a marketing firm could go to the County and pull up addresses one by one, but they won't. They will, however, develop programs to easily cull that info from public databases posted online. Similarly, the crazies aren't likely to schlep to the courthouse in order to harrass someone, but they'll quite happily sit in front of a computer.

Willy Week did an article about this last year. You can thank Tim Lyman of Oregon Realty Company for the complaint to the ombudsman, and good old Nigel J. for making an issue of it.

once a database is public like this, it's a simple step to harvest the information. either:

1) pay college kids and workers in India to go through, block by block, and harvest personal information, or

2) write programs that do the queries automatically and aggregate the data.

both are easy to do, and #2 is difficult to block. both techniques are well known; odds are good they're already being started.

Beyond the property tax information, anyone that has an interest in real property has documents recorded, and easily found -- deeds showing the amount you paid, trust deeds showing the amounts you owe. It always surprises me when accessibility to this surprises people.

"easily found" just reached a new level, Jonathan. i think the commenters are more dismayed than "surprised."

You can also get pretty ready access to all court cases, which go from criminal and civil cases all the way down to parking tickets and small claims actions.

on the Internet?


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