As more government records are computerized -- from Texas bankruptcy filings to New York drivers' licenses to state voter registration lists -- companies are eagerly buying access to the data and reselling it over computer services.
The companies, which range from tiny specialized concerns to big information mills like the Dun & Bradstreet Corp., Prentice-Hall and Mead Data Central, say they are finding increasing demand from banks, law firms, marketers, private investigators and journalists.
"It's evolved to the point now that it's so inexpensive to redistribute data that public data has in effect become a commodity with very low overhead," said Joseph W. Duncan, the chief economist at Dun & Bradstreet.
But for some experts on privacy issues, making a commodity of public data may infringe on the rights of individual citizens.
One of the fastest-growing companies, Information America Inc., based in Atlanta, offers 500 categories of data, including corporate and limited partnership records from 25 states; real estate records from 16 states, and bankruptcy records from counties around the country.
Information America, which was founded in 1982, charges $15 to $95 for each search, depending on the material. The company, which recently made an initial public stock offering in the over-the-counter market, had revenues of $14 million in 1990, 10 times greater than in 1986.
Larger companies that have long dominated information services are now expanding their offerings and more aggressively marketing their products. Prentice Hall, a unit of Simon & Schuster, recently set up a Legal and Financial Services division where clients can have access to 125 million public records, including lists of people who are delinquent in paying their taxes.
As these companies cast their nets wider, they are for the first time making public data easily accessible to most people and small businesses.
In fact, anyone with a personal computer can subscribe to an information service and probably learn something about nearly anyone in the country who has had contact with a government agency or court in the last decade. Most subscribers use the information to evaluate business opportunities, find customers, conduct background checks or support other types of research.
Privacy advocates say many people do not realize that much of the information they routinely provide government offices is being sold for an array of uses.
The companies that sell the information respond by saying they are simply providing easier access to information that has always been available to the public.
In the days before computerization, companies needing access to public records had to hire workers, sometimes in faraway states, to search by hand through paper documents in government offices. Now, they use computers linked by telephone lines to peruse records.