Just how public are your private records?

September 14, 2006 at 8:03 pm Leave a comment

I’ve talked before about how concerned I am regarding internet security and identity fraud. I think any country that relies on social security numbers as the main source of identification in both social and financial arenas is doing things ass-backwards and just plain stupid. Yes, fellow Americans, I mean our government allowing our social security numbers to become part of a public record both inside county courthouses and on the internet. What? You think your social security number isn’t available to anyone with internet access around the world? Are you sure?

Betty Ostergren, a 56 year old resident of Richmond Virginia, is committed to making important people angry. She puts their Social Security numbers on her Web site, or links to where they can be found. She does this because she is trying to embarass government into making privacy a priority. And she’s making an impression. She isn’t trying to make government officials like CIA Director Porter J. Goss, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, or Florida Gov. Jeb Bush be victims of identity theft, as were millions of plain, hardworking Americans in the past year. She is on a crusade to scare and shame public officials into doing something about how easy it is to get sensitive personal data.

Ostergren discovered that a wealth of documents — including marriage and divorce records, property deeds, and military discharge papers — containing Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other sensitive information is accessible from any computer anywhere. Many of the online records are images of original documents, which also display people’s signatures. She began organizing citizens and complaining to officials on the issue in 2002, when a title examiner called to warn her that her county was about to put a slew of documents online, including pages with her signature. She swung into action, bringing enough pressure on the Hanover County Virginia officials that they halted their plans. Then she broadened her attack, targeting other counties in Virginia and elsewhere.Today, she is eager to guide reporters to her favorite example: the Social Security number of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), which is viewable via the Internet on a tax lien filed against him in 1980. She says that if she could easily find Tom DeLay’s social security number online, couldn’t internet identity thieves do just as well with your records. I think she’s got a good point.

Ostergren found that for decades, Social Security numbers, mothers’ maiden names and other crucial forms of personal identity were routinely included in dozens of documents with little thought to the consequences. That, in turn, enabled companies such as ChoicePoint to send their workers to courthouses across the country to grab such personal data for their databanks. The information is collated, or analyzed, and sold to other companies and back to government agencies. Just what I wanted to hear. All those things I assumed would remain private, like my mother’s maiden name, are out there for anyone willing to dig them up in a county courthouse. Once that information is found, it becomes a valuable commodity and can be sold over and over again to financial database organizations. Now I get why I’m on every junque mail list for credit cards ever created, regardless of the “Do Not Contact” letter I’ve sent.

Florida is one of the few states that has legally required the blacking out of sensitive data from public records. Why Florida, which has never been known for it’s forward thinking? Thank Ms. Ostergren. When she finds a well-known figure, she decides whether exposing his or her number on her Virginia Watchdog Web site might further her cause. Which is how she came to link to Jeb Bush’s Social Security number.She notified Bush through someone she knew in the administration of his brother, President Bush. Soon after, she noticed that the governor’s number was blacked out on the county Web site in Florida where it was listed. So she posted it on her site. Ostrander says:”I decided since he protected his own hind end and nobody else’s, I’d put his on there,” she said.Ostergren gets my vote for Woman of the Week. She’s my new hero!


Entry filed under: Attacks/Exploits/Threats, Privacy, Security.

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