Judge Rules; It is legal to post Social Security numbers on Web sites
Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Expert
B.J. Ostergren is a proud Virginian. She’s known as “The Virginia Watchdog,” but I like to call her “The Pit Bull of Personal Privacy.” She is relentless in her efforts to protect citizens’ privacy, and she is primarily concerned with the posting of personal information online. So in order to make this point, she finds politicians’ personal information on their own states’ websites, and republishes that information online.
Publicly appointed government employees known as Clerks of Courts, County Clerks or Registrars are responsible for handling and managing public records, including birth, death, marriage, court, property and business filings for municipalities. Every state, city and town has its own set of regulations determining how data is collected and made available to the public.
The Privacy Act of 1974 is a federal law that establishes a code of fair information practices governing the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.
Over the years, many have interpreted this law to allow public information, including Social Security numbers, to be posted online. I’ve seen Social Security numbers for Jeb Bush, Colin Powell, former CIA Director Porter Goss, Troy Aiken, and Donald Trump, all published on the Internet.
Years ago, B.J. discovered that several states, including her home state of Virginia, were posting our records online, and she immediately saw how this could contribute to identity theft. She has downloaded as many as 22,000 Social Security numbers from deeds, mortgages, tax liens from the websites of circuit courts, registers of deeds and secretaries of state. She made a concerted effort to inform each agency that what they were doing was unethical, at the very least, and possibly even criminal. But she was often rebuked. That’s when she decided to fight back. When government agencies stopped listening, she started posting politicians’ personal information on her own website, “The Virginia Watchdog.” This certainly attracted the attention of officials, but it also created a backlash against her.
Some states resolved the issue by redacting the Social Security numbers, but Virginia did not. B.J. persisted in informing them of the problem and, as the Richmond Times Dispatch put it, “the state decided that the person who brought the problem to their attention was the problem.”
A 2008 Virgina state law prohibited disseminating information taken from public records, and thus, prohibited B.J. from posting publicly available information on her own website. So legally, it was okay for the County Clerk to do it, but nobody else was allowed. U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Payne recently ruled that this 2008 state law is a violation of First Amendment rights. It’s a win for B.J., but this doesn’t resolve the initial privacy issue.
So how does this impact you? This means that while you can do everything possible to protect yourself from fraud and identity theft, your local government may be circumventing your security efforts by posting your personal data online. B.J.’s fight has led to the resolution of some issues and prompted some states to redact data, but the battle is far from over.
Visit B.J.’s site, The Virginia Watchdog, to become more informed about one woman’s quest to point out what’s wrong and to fight for what’s right.
Next, protecting yourself from new account fraud requires a credit freeze, or setting up your own fraud alerts. This provides an extra layer of protection. In most cases it prevents the opening of new credit.
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Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Speaker discussing availability of Social Security numbers