Social Security numbers exposed on Iowa land-records Web site

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

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."

The ICRA proposed a "comprehensive redaction project" for removing Social Security numbers from real estate records and lien documents on the site, saying that the work could be funded by instituting a temporary supplemental recording fee. "It is time to tackle the task of redaction head on," Jensen said. In addition, the ICRA suggested a plan to increase security on the land records site by requiring registered users to provide more identifying information about themselves before being given access to documents.

Dunshee said the ICRA's goal is to redact all documents containing Social Security numbers, using a combination of manual and automated approaches. He added that he is putting together an estimate of the scope and cost of the work that would be involved. The ICRA is also considering the option, he said, of once again making available document images that it knows don't contain Social Security numbers — such as those recorded after January 2003, when a state law barring the inclusion of Social Security numbers in public records took effect.

The ICRA's Web site provides online access to records from each of Iowa's 99 counties. Many of the documents posted on the site were created before the restriction on including Social Security numbers was put in place, with some dating as far back as the 1980s. As a result, "hundreds of thousands" of documents containing Social Security numbers could be accessed through the site, according to the Register.

The newspaper quoted Jensen as acknowledging that "thousands" of records with Social Security numbers were listed on the Web site. She said many of the counties that feed information to the site don't have workers available to redact the older documents. Jensen did add, though, that individuals can ask their county recorders or the ICRA to have their Social Security numbers redacted.

In an interview with Computerworld today, Jensen reiterated that businesses in Iowa need to have online access to the land records. "We have telephone calls coming in from business people who want this site up and running," she said. "They obviously don't want to send runners out to 99 courthouses" to obtain copies of documents.

Jensen voiced hope that state legislators would be willing to foot the bill for redacting Social Security numbers from documents, since it was "their legislative mandate" that resulted in the records becoming available online in the first place. She added that well before the land records site went live, county officials were concerned about the potential privacy issues and were talking about the need to redact Social Security numbers. In fact, the concerns expressed by county recorders contributed to the approval of the law prohibiting the numbers from being listed in public records, Jensen claimed.

The controversy in Iowa is similar to ones that have cropped up in other states, such as Florida and Texas, over online access to property, tax, mortgage and court documents containing Social Security numbers and other sensitive personal data.

Such records have long been available for public inspection at county offices, but posting them online has made it relatively easy for anyone with an Internet connection to access them. As in Iowa, most of the Social Security numbers that find their way online are typically included in older documents because of recently enacted laws that forbid the numbers from being listed in new records. But with some counties posting millions upon millions of public records, the number of documents containing sensitive information can easily run into the hundreds of thousands per site.

Over the past few years, privacy advocates have been sounding the alarm about the fraud and identity theft issues raised by the accessibility of Social Security numbers. In response, states such as California and Florida have enacted laws that require counties to redact personal data from documents before making them available online. Others county governments have begun requiring users to register or to pay fees for online access to public records.

But many county governments continue to provide relatively unfettered access to documents containing sensitive information — in some cases, without facing any legal ramifications.

For example, Texas last year passed a law that exempts county clerks from any criminal or civil liabilities for publicly posting documents containing Social Security numbers. The state legislature acted after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled in February 2007 that disclosing Social Security numbers in public documents was a violation of both state and federal privacy laws and was a criminal offense punishable by jail time and fines.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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