Factual Research and Public Records: What to Know
The internet is a vast playground where you can conduct just about any type of research imaginable. Research derived from public records is more readily available than ever before. Public records historically only existed in paper form at government offices, courthouses, and police stations. Now, most agencies store all their public records online for easy access, storage, and retrieval.
What is a Public Record?
When searching for information about people, it usually falls into three categories: public records, public information, and private information. The easy one is private information, which are things like your medical history, social security number, financial information, credit card numbers, and insurance. With company data, it might be trade secrets, unpatented formulas, business practices, and other items.
Public records are government records. A few examples are vital records like birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates. Other types may be real estate holdings, business filings, bankruptcies, court cases, professional licenses, liens, judgments, and company filings, and financial records. It is important to note that the term “public record” does not ensure that they are free, easily accessible, or always available online.
Public information is a little trickier to classify. It may be information that was meant to be private like (company secrets or government experiments) that someone leaks to the press or puts online; thus, it becomes public information, although it was never intended as such. Another example might be resumes posted on public forums or non-private telephone numbers (back when everyone had landlines).
Another dangerous way that something becomes public that should remain private is through public records. Sometimes divorce records, bankruptcies, or court cases may expose private information such as bank account numbers, medical records, VINs, driver’s license numbers, social security numbers, or other sensitive data, even though that data is supposed to remain private.
Another final category is called quasi-public” information, which some government information falls into. Military records are one of these items. The military does its best to keep most things private, but often details leak out by one form or another, and then a scandal breaks on the news. When some portion of something is meant to be a public record but some of it not, that is when it is considered a quasi-public record. Other examples include school records, workers’ compensation records, and criminal repository records. If you do find these records, some of the data may be redacted (blacked out) to keep it private.
What is Factual Research?
Factual research is used liberally within the legal and news fields, but it also has many other purposes. It usually involves investigating people, places, events, and things to verify facts before taking some type of action.
Factual research involves finding source documents (public records or other government/official paperwork) that support the facts about a person or event. It deals with finding the truth, not fake or misleading information but simply cold, hard, facts. A public record, such as a birth certificate, can typically be a trusted resource for finding out when and where someone was born and determining their age.
Often doing factual research can be time-consuming and fruitless. With billions of people in the world, there are billions more public records to sift through. You also need some basic information about the subject of your research, and those details may be hard to come by. Some tips to make the factual research process easier are:
- Use a database source that is comprehensive, updated frequently, and contains billions of records.
- Some older records will not be online, and you may have to visit local town offices or library archives to find paper documents that pre-date the technological era.
- Every state has specific laws about what is considered “public record,” and although the Freedom of Information Act., provides access, not all records will be attainable. For example, juvenile records are typically sealed until the person reaches adulthood and sometimes even longer.
- Many government agencies have their records posted online, and you can search through government-owned websites.
- You can also use a data aggregation service to quickly and easily search for a wide variety of details on a person or company.
- Many court cases are also readily available online through different portals. However, you might need the subject’s name, location, and other information to pull them up.
There is a fine line between just enough and too much public information. Below are two statutes that govern an individual’s private information:
- Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) – 18 U.S.C. § 2721.
- Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) – 15 U.S.C. §§ 6801-6809.
Keep in mind although public records are “public,” how you use this information is important both ethically and legally. Some states have specific laws about using information during the hiring process and in other decision-making capacities.