Publicly Available Information: Legal and Ethical Considerations

what is publicly available information

Recent advances with ChatGPT and other AI-based tools have shed the spotlight again on digital data, information privacy, copyright concerns, and similar matters involving publicly available information (PAI).

Despite renewed interest in this topic, there’s still much ambiguity about the legal and ethical implications, although regulators have introduced a number of legislations to protect consumers and their data privacy.

In this article, we explore what exactly publicly available information is and how it can be used without crossing legal and ethical boundaries.

Publicly Available Information: What You Need to Know 

Unfortunately, there’s no single established definition of PAI. How it’s described varies among countries, states, and even organizations, which has likely exacerbated the confusion surrounding it.

For instance, based on the Federal Trade Commission, PAI includes:

“federal, state, or local government records made available to the public, such as the fact that an individual has a mortgage with a particular financial institution [and] information that is in widely distributed media like telephone books, newspapers, and websites that are available to the general public on an unrestricted basis, even if the site requires a password or fee for access.”

Meanwhile, the Consumer Data Protection Act of the state of Virginia describes publicly available data as:

“information that is lawfully made available through federal, state, or local government records, or information that a business has a reasonable basis to believe is lawfully made available to the general public through widely distributed media, by the consumer, or by a person to whom the consumer has disclosed the information, unless the consumer has restricted the information to a specific audience.”

The general idea is that data can be considered as “public material” when it is,

  • Deemed legally or ethically accessible to the public by the government.

Such information can range from property ownership details, marriage licenses, and driving histories to court records and sex offender convictions. These generally don’t require the relevant individual’s consent before they’re shared with others.

  • Reasonably believed by an organization that the individual who legally owns it has shared it for public access.

Information that appears in newspapers, magazines, online news media, technical journals, commercial directories, and other publications can all come under this. It also covers user-generated content, including social media posts, forum comments, and personal blogs.

Keep in mind that material restricted to a limited audience by its owner doesn’t belong to the “public” category. For instance, social media posts you’ve shared only with those in your network are classified as non-public.

Public vs Private Information: The Importance of Knowing the Distinction 

people search sites

The surge in digital interactions, particularly in the past two decades, has led to the creation of a staggering amount of digital data.

Regular people now have an extensive digital footprint, which keeps expanding each time they engage on social networking platforms, browse search engines, shop online, or perform countless other activities on the internet.

According to Statista, the US is home to the third largest social media audience in the world, with about 91 percent of internet users regularly using various social media platforms. This alone can lead to a significant increase in people’s data footprint throughout their lifetime.

In addition, much of the information that previously existed in hard-copy format has now transitioned into the digital space, further adding to the vast amount of data in cyberspace. You can especially see this with records held by the government.

All these practices have created an expansive web of inter-connected data in a digital ecosystem, making access to information faster and effortless like never before.

Of course, not everything you find online can be classified as publicly available information. Some could contain unethically sourced data or those that infringe copyright laws.

Take, for instance, doxxing. This is a common practice where malicious individuals publish someone’s personal data, such as their address or social security number, on the internet to deliberately cause them harm.

Hacking is another issue, which can leak sensitive or confidential data to publicly accessible sites. Besides, some organizations may collect identifiable information without explicit consent and share it with others.

As a result of these activities, you could end up using non-public information without realizing it, crossing ethical norms and violating regulations. 

However, you can avoid such mishaps when you understand the distinction between what is deemed public and private.

How Can You Use Public Information Legally and Ethically?

The easiest way to find data that doesn’t breach legal requirements is via a data aggregator that accumulates PAI.

People search sites are undoubtedly the most popular such data-related service providers. They’ve replaced the good old telephone directories — large, heavy books filled with phone numbers and addresses of individuals and businesses — to meet the needs of today’s users.

People search platforms typically source people records from federal, state, and county databases as well as other public domains, such as social networking sites.

The PAI they collect is verified and organized using AI and other advanced technology to make it easily accessible. 

You can find the data they’ve aggregated with a simple name search or even by reverse searching a phone number, email, address, username, or a similar identifier.

What type of public records can these platforms discover for you?

  • First and last name, age, gender, and marital status.
  • Links to social media profiles on different social networking sites.
  • Phone numbers, addresses, emails, and other current and past contact details.
  • Names of relatives, friends, coworkers, and associates of a particular individual.
  • Educational qualifications and high schools and colleges attended.
  • Employers, industry experience, licenses, businesses, and similar work-related information.
  • Financial details, including assets, mortgages, and liens.
  • Records relating to minor and major criminal offenses. These can cover speeding tickets, warrants, and legal suits, among others.

People search sites can retrieve all the above details from publicly available records so you can remain legally compliant when accessing their information.

But this doesn’t relieve you from basic ethical obligations. For instance, using people search services to stalk someone or commit fraud is not only immoral but also illegal.

Even when using them for reasonable purposes, you must be mindful of respecting individual privacy and avoid unnecessary prying.

Some of the instances you can ethically use such services include:

  • Finding out who is behind an unsolicited or unexpected call, email, or message to avoid common scams. 
  • Tracking down friends and family you’ve lost touch with.
  • Knowing more about the people living next door to you.
  • Locating registered sex offenders in your area to keep your family safe.
  • Identifying unknown callers to avoid telemarketing and spam calls.
  • Checking the background of individuals you interact with online, whether it’s your potential date or social media friends.
  • Learning more about strangers to confirm they are who they say they are. An example is verifying the identity of a potential roommate or an online vendor.

When considering the ethical and legal use of public records, selecting a people search service that allows individuals to remove personal information from their platforms is also important.

Irrespective of the fact that their records are publicly sourced, reputable sites provide an opt-out option for this without imposing a fee.

Nuwber, for instance, allows people to request information removal in the Remove My Info section of the website, based on which the respective pages are deleted within 2 business days. In addition, Nuwber sends a request to Google to remove the page URLs from Google search results.

You can opt out at any time, no ID verification is required. This indicates that the platform values individual privacy — an added assurance that you’re accessing public data from an ethical data aggregator.

Managing Your Own Public Data Footprint

how to manage your digital footprint

While you access public records of others, there’s a high chance they’re accessing yours, too. And some of them may not be as concerned about legal or ethical implications as you are.

If you’re worried about your own PAI, the first thing to do is to understand what is out there. A quick name search on a people search site could help you identify all the details others can access.

Keep in mind that you may not be able to remove many of them, including what is available on government records. You can, however, minimize their discoverability to a large extent by removing your data from people search platforms.

For this, create a list of all the top data aggregators and check their data opt-out policies. Based on them, reach out to each platform to request information removal.

This might take some effort and time. However, that is the price you must pay to enjoy privacy in the digital age.

Here are additional steps you can take to minimize your data footprint:

  • Delete excessive or unnecessary information you’ve created online. These can include social media and blog posts, comments, videos, and personal profiles.
  • Google your name to identify other websites carrying your public information and reach out to them to request data removal.
  • Disable intrusive data-collecting options on online accounts, apps, websites, browsers, and devices. For instance, opt out of cookies and delete your browser’s search history.
  • Be mindful of what you provide consent to, both intentionally and otherwise. The Pew Research Center reports that a staggering 56% of Americans don’t read privacy policies. If you’re one of them, make an extra effort to familiarize yourself with how organizations treat your data.

In Conclusion

Rapid technological advancements in recent years have triggered renewed concerns about publicly available information. If you want to access public data about individuals in a legal and ethical manner, using a reputable people search platform is the best option.

But remember, you still have a moral obligation to respect individual privacy and use the information you acquire for ethical and legitimate purposes.


Is individual consent always required to make data publicly available?

No. Government offices, for instance, can make certain records accessible to the public without obtaining explicit consent.

Information about a property’s owner and deeds that the County Clerk provides is one example.

Do all people search sites rely on PAI?

Reputable sites like Nuwber limit the information they carry to PAI acquired from legitimate public sources. 

However, some dubious platforms may use non-public data, too. This is why it’s important to find a reliable people search service to ensure you don’t violate ethical and legal parameters governing information access.

How can I use a people search site to find publicly available information?

The specific type of search service you need to use will depend on the information already available to you to conduct a search.

For instance, if you only have a phone number, you can do a reverse phone lookup to retrieve public information relating to the number’s owner. 

Is it legal for organizations and websites to charge a fee to provide PAI?

Yes, there’s nothing preventing them from requesting a payment for their PAI-related data services. In fact, even certain government offices will charge an admin fee to give you access to public records.

What should I do if a site requests a payment to remove my data?

The complex and sometimes elusive nature of the digital space makes it extra challenging to legally enforce online data removal.

However, you can still minimize footfall to such sites by complaining to Google and other search engines. This can prevent the relevant web pages from appearing on search engine result pages, hindering their discoverability.

Eugene Kirdzei
Eugene Kirdzei

Chief Technical Officer at Nuwber
With nearly two decades of experience in the IT industry, Eugene possesses comprehensive knowledge across his professional field, including in data management, data protection, and information search. Through his writing, he aims to provide valuable insights and practical advice on how to safely explore the online environment and leverage digital tools to enhance people’s lives.