FAQ: Is your county posting your Social Security number online?

Government Web sites may harbor SSNs and other personal data in public records

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Wait a minute. Does that mean my neighbor can snoop on me? Probably. And not just your neighbor, but a cybercrook in some far-away country as well. To help them in their snooping, most county Web sites offer user-friendly interfaces and drop-down menus that let people search for public records by last name, document type, date range and so on. On the plus side, some sites restrict searches to an index of documents. But others allow users to search the images of actual records.

What's being done about this? Privacy advocates such as Betty "BJ" Ostergren, who runs a Web site called The Virginia Watchdog, have been calling attention to the issue for the past few years. And their campaigns have had an impact. Dozens of county governments around the U.S. have redacted Social Security numbers and some other types of personal data from online images of public records, or are working to do so. States such as Florida and California have enacted laws mandating such redactions. However, the redaction efforts only involve truly sensitive information such as Social Security numbers and credit card or bank account data. Other types of information remain part of the public record.

How can I tell if my Social Security number is on a public record that's accessible online? Check the Web site of your county recorder or county clerk to see if public records are posted online and whether there is just an index of documents or full document images. If public records are available in image form, you can usually search for ones that mention you by choosing the type of documents you want to look for and entering your name and or address.

I just found a public record that does contain my Social Security number. What can I do now? Many counties redact personal data from public records upon request, if you can point them to the document containing the offending information. But others say that they're prohibited by state laws from altering public records in any way, and thus may refuse to redact information. In such cases, there's little that can be done, other than trying to put pressure on local and state officials to change laws regarding the inclusion of personal data in online records.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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