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Social Security numbers exposed on Iowa land-records Web site

County recorders group restricts access to documents, proposes data redaction effort

September 5, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In the latest example of a data privacy controversy that has become increasingly familiar nationwide, it came to light this week that a publicly accessible Web site maintained by the Iowa County Recorders Association (ICRA) has made land records containing the Social Security numbers of thousands of state residents — including Gov. Chet Culver — available online since January 2005.

The IowaLandRecords.org site has been largely inaccessible since Tuesday, when The Des Moines Register ran the first in a series of stories about the issue.

Phil Dunshee, project manager for IowaLandRecords.org, said today that the Web site has literally been overwhelmed by traffic, forcing workers to take down the server that runs it for maintenance. "My impression is that individuals were trying to get into the system to check their own records, but I don't have any data to validate that," he said.

According to Dunshee, the site probably contains online images of more than 10 million public records altogether. In a press release issued Wednesday (download PDF), the ICRA said that effective immediately, it would restrict access to mortgage documents and the Uniform Commercial Code financing statements that banks and other creditors file when individuals take out certain types of loans. Doing so "should allay concerns" about Social Security numbers being compromised, the ICRA said.

Dunshee said that once the site comes back up, users will still be able to access a basic index of documents — but not the full images of them, as was the case until earlier this week. Before the restrictions were imposed, anyone who registered with the site could access the full documents. But thus far, in the more than three years that the records have been available via the site, there is no indication that those access privileges have been misused, Dunshee claimed.

Joyce Jensen, chairperson of the land records system's governing board, said in Wednesday's press release that access to lien documents is already restricted in a similar manner because of privacy concerns related to Social Security numbers. But she added that the move to broaden the restrictions is only a "temporary solution" and that online access to documents needs to be restored in the future.

"We cannot fulfill our mandate to provide free access to public records by preventing people from viewing records online," said Jensen, who is the recorder in Iowa's Cass County. The land records site and its underlying database are "a valuable and important resource to the real estate industry and to the citizens of Iowa," Jensen said. "That value diminishes when information is restricted."



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