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Counties Post Personal Data in Documents

Online records put Social Security numbers, other sensitive info in open

April 17, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Broward County, Fla., Fort Bend County, Texas, and Maricopa County, Ariz., have something in common: In recent years, they have made sensitive personal information about their residents, such as Social Security, driver's license and bank account numbers, available to anyone in the world with Internet access.

And they aren't alone by any means. The failure to remove sensitive data from images of land records and other public documents posted online has made county government Web sites across the U.S. a veritable treasure trove of information for identity thieves and other criminals, several privacy advocates claimed last week.

"These sites are just spoon-feeding criminals the information they need," said BJ Ostergren, a Virginia resident who runs a privacy-related Web site called The Virginia Watchdog.

The pieces of personally identifiable information found on county Web sites and made available to Computerworld by Ostergren and other privacy advocates included the Social Security number of Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) on a tax lien document; the Social Security numbers of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife on a quitclaim deed from 1999; the driver's license numbers, vehicle registration information, height, race and addresses of people arrested for traffic violations; the names and birth dates of minors from divorce decrees; and complete copies of death certificates.

"All of this information is available to anyone sitting in a cafe in Nigeria or anywhere else in the world," said David Bloys, a retired private investigator who publishes a newsletter called "News for County Officials" in Shallowater, Texas. "It's a real security threat."

Scope of Threat Unknown

It's hard to say exactly how many of the 3,600 county governments around the country are posting sensitive data on the Web, said Mark Monacelli, president of the Property Records Industry Association, a Durham, N.C.-based industry group set up to facilitate the recording of and access to public property information.

But it's safe to assume that a large number of them are, said Darity Wesley, CEO of La Mesa, Calif.-based Privacy Solutions Inc., which offers consulting services to the real estate industry. "I think a lot of [county] recorders have been putting public land records on the Internet without any concern about who has access to them," Wesley said.

Sue Baldwin, director of the Broward County Records Division in Florida, said all of the state's counties are subject to a law requiring them to maintain Web sites for public records, many of which contain sensitive data.

A new Florida statute requires counties by the start of next year to black out Social Security, bank account, and credit and debit card numbers from document images that are already posted online. Also starting on Jan. 1, county recorders will be given the authority to black out the same numbers from new documents. For now, recorders have "no statutory authority to automatically remove" such information from documents, Baldwin said. She added that Broward County residents who want sensitive data immediately excised from public records must file written requests.

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