practical obscurity [English]

Syndetic Relationships

InterPARES Definition

n. ~ The legal principle that considers private information restricted if access, while technically possible, is so difficult and time consuming that it is impractical.

General Notes

The concept was articulated by the United State Supreme Court in "U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press" (489 US 749 (1989)) and addressed information in paper records. In this case and similar scenarios, the records were physically remote, were accessible manually, often with limited indexes. There was no certainty that an individual's private information was in the records, and finding the information may have required reviewing many records. However, scanning the records and providing opportunity for full-text search or data mining made the information more readily accessible, diminishing the information's practical obscurity.

Other Definitions

  • SAA Glossary 2005 (†241 ): n. ~ The principle that private information in public records is effectively protected from disclosure as the result of practical barriers to access. Notes: Practical barriers to access include travel to view the record, the passage of time, and the limits of indexing. When public records are accessible on the Internet, those barriers are diminished.


  • Library Privacy Blog 2017 (†895 ): Practical obscurity is a concept which pre-dates the online world. It refers to the impediments to data retrieval. The concept was articulated by the Supreme Court in U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In evaluating the privacy of a “rap sheet” containing aggregated public records, the Supreme Court found a privacy interest in information that was technically available to the public, but could only be found by spending a burdensome and unrealistic amount of time and effort in obtaining it. The information was considered practically obscure because of the extremely high cost and low likelihood of the information being compiled by the public. (†2690)