Privacy watchdog ratchets up effort to get county court to block document access

Ostergren links to legal records she says contain Social Security numbers of officials

Escalating her efforts to get a California court to break the links to online documents that allegedly contain sensitive personal data, Virginia-based privacy advocate Betty "BJ" Ostergren today posted links on her Web site to legal filings containing what she says are the Social Security numbers of the mayor of Riverside, Calif., as well as other city officials.

Ostergren, whose site is called The Virginia Watchdog, claims that potentially tens of thousands of documents containing Social Security numbers, medical histories, tax records and bank account data have been posted on the Web site of the Superior Court in California's Riverside County as part of civil case records.

On Thursday, Ostergren said that she had contacted court officials to inform them of the situation and ask them to block online access to documents containing sensitive data so the information couldn't fall into the hands of would-be identity thieves. She said today that she posted the links to lien documents that appear to contain the Social Security numbers of local officials after not getting an adequate response from the court.

Posting personal data about politicians and other high-profile individuals is a tactic that Ostergren has used in the past as part of her campaign to pressure county and state government officials to remove or redact sensitive information from official Web sites. The lobbying efforts of Ostergren and other privacy advocates have prompted some government officials, including California's secretary of state, to shut off access to some online records or scrub sensitive data out of them.

In the case of the Riverside County court, Ostergren was tipped off to the alleged availability of online documents with sensitive information by an anonymous individual known only as "Privacy Pete." That person originally publicized the claims about the court's Web site in a message posted April 22 on a forum for members of the California Highway Patrol (CHP). In an update posted on the same forum last night, Privacy Pete claimed to have personally seen the Social Security numbers of more than 7,000 individuals in documents on the court's Web site.

That's in addition to a batch of more than 1,000 Social Security numbers belonging to CHP officers that Privacy Pete mentioned in the original post. In the update, Privacy Pete hypothesized that altogether, the court's Web site might be harboring as many as 200,000 documents containing Social Security numbers.

Gary Whitehead, the Riverside County court's director of IT, didn't respond by publication time today to a request for comment on the latest actions by Ostergren and Privacy Pete.

Yesterday, Whitehead defended the court's document posting practices, saying that court records are being posted on the Web site in accordance with California laws and that finding data such as Social Security numbers on the site is extremely difficult. "We have probably 20 million pages that are available on the Internet," Whitehead said. "[Privacy Pete] was able to point to five that had attachments containing personally identifiable information. So those are available, but to find them is like finding a needle in a haystack."

Searches done on the court's Web site by Computerworld have turned up documents such as a tax return containing the Social Security numbers of the filer, her four children and the tax preparer. In each instance, a specific legal case number provided by Ostergren was entered in the records search field on the court's Web site in order to access the documents. Ostergren, though, claimed that it's possible to find similar documents simply by entering popular last names in the search field.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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