Irate Ark. man posts county e-mail records in privacy fight

He wants sensitive data expunged from county docs

An Arkansas resident is posting the internal e-mail records of various officials in the Pulaski County clerk's office on his Web site in retaliation for what he calls the county's refusal to remove certain public documents containing Social Security numbers from its Web site.

The e-mails are considered public records and were obtained by Bill Phillips, a native of North Little Rock, under Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They represent a year's worth of e-mails sent and received by nine officials at the county office, including the county clerk himself.

Phillips started posting the e-mails on his Web site, www.pulaskiwatch.com, about a week ago, after County Clerk Pat O'Brien refused to remove tens of thousands of circuit court records containing Social Security numbers and other personal data from the county government Web site. That data included bank account numbers, birth dates and check images.

The county site had previously made available public the real estate records of county residents, thousands of which contained the same kind of personal information, Phillips said. At least one of the records that was posted online with sensitive information belonged to Phillips, who described himself as a flight instructor.

Online access to Pulaski County's real estate records was disabled in July at the request of the state attorney general, who has said that sensitive information needs to be redacted from them before they can go online again.

But attempts to get O'Brien to do the same with circuit court records have so far been unsuccessful, prompting Phillips to act. For the most part, the e-mails -- which number in the thousands, according to Phillips -- appear largely to be innocuous office communications covering mundane issues such as daily staff-attendance details and meetings.

A few, among the handful of e-mails perused by Computerworld, appeared to deal with potentially sensitive issues. One e-mail, for instance, involved the appropriate salary levels for two recently demoted employees. Another involved an employee who quit her job at least partly out of safety concerns related to a stranger in the parking lot.

Ironically, many of the e-mails posted online have a disclaimer at the bottom stating that the information in them is "confidential" and "proprietary" while at the same time being subject to review by third parties at any time.

In addition to the e-mails, Phillips has also posted on his site a list of all the employees working at the county clerk's office, together with their dates of hire and current salaries.

"My take is that these are all public documents, too," Phillips said. "It's tit for tat." He said he would be glad to remove all of the e-mails and employee information from his site if O'Brien does the same with court records containing Social Security numbers and other sensitive data.

Speaking with Computerworld today, O'Brien said he is not concerned by Phillips' move. "I don't care. They are public documents," O'Brien said.

During his tenure as county clerk, O'Brien said he has repeatedly told employees that all official e-mail communications are subject to just this kind of public review, he said. He also said that Phillips' decision to post salary details is a good thing because it would let county residents know just "how ridiculously little my front-line employees make."

O'Brien noted that all of the records online that Phillips is upset about comply with relevant state laws and that there are no plans to remove them. He acknowledged that some might contain Social Security numbers, but said he does not know exactly how many that might be. O'Brien did not disagree with Phillips' assertion that "tens of thousands" of documents may include Social Security numbers.

He noted that redaction efforts are under way to remove personal details from real estate records. In fact, the software for redacting these details had already been installed at the time of the attorney general's request earlier this year. For court records, however, any instructions on how to deal with Social Security numbers must come directly from the Arkansas Supreme Court -- the only body with the proper authority in the matter, O'Brien said.

O'Brien said his office would consider redacting data from those documents, but the software used by the county for redacting real estate records will not work with the court documents. As a result, the county would still have to find the right software to handle the court records, he said.

Although O'Brien said he understands why people would be concerned about the availability of Social Security numbers in Web-accessible public documents, he has little control over the issue. "If [a public record] contains a Social Security number, it is because someone filed it like that down here," he said. The person who signs those documents also needs to take responsibility for allowing personal data to appear in a public record, he said.

"I am a huge proponent of freedom of information and believe that public records should be accessible online," O'Brien said. "Mr. Phillips has a different view, which I respect, but which I disagree with."

The disagreement in Pulaski County 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 sensitive personal data.

The issue in recent years has raised questions about the practice, caused consternation among some privacy advocates and prompted calls for better protection of sensitive information online.

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 view them. Most of the Social Security numbers that find their way online are typically included in older documents; recent laws forbid the numbers from being listed in new records. But with some counties posting millions of public records, the number of documents containing sensitive information can easily run into the hundreds of thousands per community.

Just last week, for instance, there was a similar controversy in Iowa when a local paper disclosed that a publicly accessible Web site maintained by the Iowa County Recorders Association has made land records containing the Social Security numbers of thousands of state residents -- including Gov. Chet Culver -- available online since January 2005.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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