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With digital data, state must consider how to protect people’s personal information

Re “More sunshine, not less, needed with Mass. public records” (Editorial, Feb. 1): Massachusetts is a state of American firsts, including being the first state in the nation to establish a registry of vital records.

The Department of Public Health collects and maintains more than 20 million paper copy records, including births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and other personal data. The laws governing the access to these records have not changed substantially since the 1930s.

The Department of Public Health has taken steps to begin digitizing these records. With this update, we must consider how to protect people’s personal information in accordance with 21st-century standards to prevent identity theft and fraud, while improving public access.

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The proposal contained in Governor Baker’s budget ensures that people’s vital records are both protected from identity theft and available for legitimate public purposes. Missing in the Globe’s editorial was that the state’s Public Health Council will develop regulations that specify the levels of access to vital records for the general public, including genealogists, historians, and journalists. These regulations will undergo a robust public process prior to implementation.

The public may be surprised to know that Massachusetts’ vital records laws allow unfettered access to birth, marriage, and death certificates without people’s knowledge or authorization. As we move our vital records data collection into the 21st century and make this information available online, it’s important that we evaluate how to better secure this personal information while balancing public access.

Dr. Monica Bharel

Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health

Boston


Stories from state hospitals are just one example of kind of records we all have right to see

Your editorial in response to Governor Baker’s proposal to restrict access to birth records, death certificates, and marriage notices points out several important instances of the need for more access to public records, not less. Since these documents and communications are done on behalf of the public and held in public repositories, the burden of proof for restriction should be much higher than the right of all of us to see these records. It is the height of irony that the governor buried this rule in an attachment to an amendment to his budget, perhaps hoping that no one would see it.

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For the last few years, a number of people have gathered each summer to honor and remember more than 300 people who are buried in unnamed graves at the Metfern Cemetery in Waltham. The personal stories of those buried there and thousands of others who were institutionalized at state psychiatric hospitals and the Fernald State School for people with intellectual disabilities are held at the Massachusetts State Archives. Current policy makes it nearly impossible for family members, historians, medical researchers, and genealogists to understand what happened to each of these individuals. A bill being considered by the Legislature would allow us to learn their stories after their record has been held for 75 years and perhaps teach us lessons that no one else can.

Dr. Alan Lobovits

Newton

The writer is a pediatrician and a member of the board of the New England Center for Children. His views here are his own.