A Privacy FAQ: What About You is Online?

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Since early 2005, land records containing the Social Security numbers of thousands of Iowans have been posted and made publicly accessible on a Web site maintained by the Iowa County Recorders Association. That practice, which came to light this week, is similar to what has been done on many other county government Web sites that provide online access to public records such as property, tax and court documents.

The online records, which often are easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, may also contain other types of personal data, including birth dates and bank account, credit card and driver's license numbers. Privacy advocates have warned that the presence of such information on government Web sites has made them an online treasure trove for identity thieves and other fraudsters.

What do you need to know about all this? Read on for more information about what's being posted online and what you might be able to do about it.

What kind of public records are showing up on government Web sites? The list of documents you can find online includes property and tax records -- for example, filings related to mortgages and liens. Also on that list are motor vehicle documents; divorce, family and juvenile court records, as well as filings about consent decrees; wills and probate records; and documents relating to military discharges. Typically, such documents are maintained by county clerks or recorders.

And do all of those documents contain Social Security numbers? No. Only a small fraction of the millions of public records maintained by county and state governments are believed to include SSNs. And most public records filed over the past few years don't list them, thanks to state laws prohibiting the practice. But many older records do, especially documents that were filed prior to the mid-1990s. As a result, an individual Web site still might harbor tens or even hundreds of thousands of documents containing personal data.

What other personal info can someone find online? Depending on the type of document it is, it can also include birth dates, addresses, bank account data, information about debts, driver's license and vehicle registration numbers, the height and race of individuals, the names and birth dates of minor children, child custody details and even medical records.

So who can see these records? By definition, public records are open to anybody. In the pre-Internet past, people typically had to county offices to view them. Now, though, county and state governments are posting documents online in order to broaden access and make it easier to retrieve the information. In doing so, they have removed much of the "practical obscurity" that previously shrouded public records. Some governments charge for online access to documents, and others require users to register -- but many simply allow unfettered access to everything on their sites.

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 campaign has 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.

This story, "A Privacy FAQ: What About You is Online?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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