Remote Access to Computerized Records

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Another development that has arisen with the advent of electronic records and the development of the Internet is the ability of citizens to access information remotely. County offices are authorized under Tennessee law to provide computer access and remote electronic access (for inquiry only) to information contained in the records of the office which are stored on computer.[1]  Access may be provided both during and after regular business hours. The official who has custody of the records may charge persons using remote electronic access a reasonable amount to recover the costs of providing such services and no other services. The fee must be uniformly applied and must be limited to the actual costs of providing access. It can not include the cost of storage and maintenance of the records or the costs of the electronic record storage system.[2]  Any officials providing remote access to their computer records must implement procedures and utilize a system that does not allow records of the office to be altered, deleted or impaired in any manner. Any official choosing to provide this service must file a statement with the office of the Comptroller of the Treasury at least 30 days prior to implementing the system. The statement must describe the computer equipment, software and procedures that are used to provide access and to maintain security and preservation of the computer records. The state of Tennessee will not bear any of the costs of providing access.[3]  Once a system for providing access is in place, any member of the public willing to pay the fees must be allowed to have access to the records, including anyone desiring to use the information for proprietary purposes.[4]  Similar provisions specific to electronic files of voter registration systems can be found elsewhere in the code.[5]                 

An attorney general’s opinion examined the question of  whether a county official could provide remote access to public records through a private vendor.[6]  In the circumstances described in the opinion, a vendor was allowed to upload a copy of the data stored on the computers in the office of the register of deeds in exchange for certain services provided by the vendor. The vendor then had the right to provide public access to the data via a subscription service. The attorney general opined that this agreement violated T.C.A. § 10-7-123. Specifically, subsection (a)(4) of that statute provides that once a remote access system is in place, access must be given uniformly to all members of the public who desire access so long as they pay the reasonable fees to the county official to cover the cost of actually providing the service. In this case, remote access was being provided by the county official only to one entity, the vendor, and denied to the rest of the public. The law does not prohibit a private vendor from selling subscriptions to the information which has been acquired from county offices.[7]  But it does require the county official to provide equal access to the data to anyone willing to pay the access fee.

The attorney general has also been asked whether there was a problem with the criminal court clerk’s office making records, including information about arrests, charges and disposition of cases, available on the Internet. The attorney general opined that the clerk could make such records available in that fashion, so long as the clerk still complied with orders to expunge records and insured they were removed from the Internet as well as the files of the clerk’s office once an order compelling expungement was issued by the judge.[8]  This standard applied whether a case led to a conviction or was disposed of through judicial diversion.[9]

            [1]  T.C.A. § 10-7-123.

            [2]   T.C.A. § 10-7-123.

            [3]   T.C.A. § 10-7-123(a)(1).

            [4]   T.C.A. § 10-7-123(a)(4).

            [5]   T.C.A. § 2-2-138.

            [6]  Op. Tenn. Att’y Gen. No. 04-114 (July 19, 2004).

            [7]  Op. Tenn. Att’y Gen. No. 04-114.

            [8]  Op. Tenn. Att’y Gen. No. 00-058 (March 31, 2000).

            [9]  Op. Tenn. Att’y Gen. No. 00-014 (January 26, 2000).