Why You Should Be Worried About Your Privacy on the Web

Over the past five years, bulk scanning and online publishing of such documents have proliferated in many states. In many cases, including New Hampshire -- my state of residence -- little or no attempt has been made to redact sensitive personal data such as Social Security numbers before moving those records online. The public is blissfully unaware that these documents, which were once accessible only in dusty books inside the walls of the registry of deeds, are now freely available over the Web to anyone in the world with a click of a mouse.

Ostergren says that this information is a treasure trove for data aggregators, brokers and criminals. Unlike financial and medical records, which are regulated, Social Security numbers gathered from public records come with no strings attached. They can be republished anywhere with impunity. "You're in a state that is spoon-feeding Social Security numbers to everybody," Ostergren says.

In the county where I live, legal documents from 1975 and on have been scanned and placed for public viewing on the Web. No registration or payment is required to view those records, although there is a charge to print official copies. The database includes thousands of records on New Hampshire citizens, including tax liens, federal liens, divorce papers, financing statements, military discharge papers, death certificates -- even a mobile home warranty. Any legal document filed with the registry is fair game.

In these records I found names, addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, signatures, children's names, educational backgrounds, blood types, work histories and other personal data. Newer mortgage documents no longer contain Social Security numbers (mine was from 2001), but many other documents still do -- including death certificates and tax liens. In my case, fortunately, just one document on file -- the old mortgage -- contained my Social Security number.

Revelations from the rest of my government database searches were less sensational. State and county court documents are public records. In many states, those records are already online and available for public viewing on the Web. New Hampshire's county court records have not been put online, but the state has plans to do so, according to a county official.

Lauren Noether, bureau chief for consumer protection and antitrust at the New Hampshire Department of Justice, says it's just a matter of time before those records are available online. But she is concerned because standards for what information appears in legal documents have changed over time.

"I had an individual call to tell me that their child's name was in [an old] child abuse indictment. Nowadays we don't do that," she says. Noether amended the document, but she worries that bulk scanning and publishing of all historical records would bring many other inappropriate disclosures into public view.

Like many states, New Hampshire has a child sex offender registry. I am not a sex offender, but for the purposes of this story (I am the subject of the investigation, after all) I ran my name through anyway. As expected, I wasn't on the list, but it was chilling to find three other Mitchells listed there.

My next stop was the federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database, which contains U.S. District, Appellate and Bankruptcy court records. Here the government wants to know who is searching. The registration process for users involves entering your Social Security number, date of birth and other data.

I found myself trolling through dozens of records of people who were not me, at a cost of $.08 per page of results. I pulled up a total of 119 records, including 51 Robert L. Mitchell bankruptcies.

Another Robert L. Mitchell had been arrested for kidnapping. But nothing matched the Robert L. Mitchell I was researching.

The PACER system required that I conduct a separate search for each jurisdiction. CriminalSearches.com is a commercial site that aggregates the same information so that you can do a single search across all jurisdictions -- and it's free. I executed a free search on the Web site. Apparently, I have a clean record in all 50 states.

I also searched state and county databases for the state in which I reside. Database aggregators such as LexisNexis pull information from all of the various local, state and federal databases and roll them up for easier searching, but you need to buy a subscription to use such services.

Computerworld has a LexisNexis subscription, but that costs money. While I did fork over $.08 a page for PACER results, that amounted to less than a dollar. At this point in my investigation, I wanted to see how much I could find for nothing -- or next to nothing -- before resorting to fee-based services.

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