Dangerous Convenience Dangerous Convenience

Most IT workers in state and local government know the cliché that asserts citizens should be "online" rather than "in line" when attaining government services. But many of them contend citizens should be "in line" when accessing some types of public information. Numerous states offer Web access to public records, such as uniform commercial code (UCC) documents, tax liens, divorce decrees, death certificates and many others. These documents frequently contain Social Security numbers (SSNs), mothers' maiden names, signatures, minors' names and other red meat for identity thieves and stalkers.

The Internet is forcing state and local governments to re-evaluate how they handle public information. Agencies are attempting to balance privacy concerns with the convenience and efficiency of online public documents. Public and private organizations increasingly rely on Web-based public document services. For instance, title companies say they would need to raise prices if their employees were forced to stand in line to research land records, and circuit court offices would need to hire legions of workers to search the records for citizens requesting them in-person.

Most governments expect to address the problem through software designed to remove SSNs from online documents. But the process - known as redacting - isn't foolproof; the technology options remain rather crude. Furthermore, state and local agencies struggle to fund redaction projects, which can include a huge number of online documents.

At this point, several governments have completed redaction projects, but many still lack concrete starting plans.

Social Security Number Surprise

Circuit courts and secretaries of state nationwide offer online public document databases that publish SSNs. You can often find them in UCC documents, tax liens and other property records. Most states began offering these documents online between 1999 and 2001. Title companies research them to verify ownership and collect other information necessary for real estate transactions.

In 2002, Virginia resident Betty Ostergren learned that her local circuit court clerk was about to put her mortgage documents online, which included her signature. Ostergren's documents didn't contain her SSN because they were filed prior to the 1990s - when nearby lenders began requiring SSNs. However, the thought of an identity thief lifting her signature from the Internet infuriated her.

She created the Virginia Watchdog Web site aimed at exposing state and local government agencies publishing SSNs, signatures and other personal information online. To draw attention to her crusade, Ostergren found the SSNs of public figures and agency leaders and posted them on her Web site. The strategy motivated several local agencies to redact SSNs.

She posted the SSNs of public figures, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and celebrities Kelly Ripa, Joe Namath and Troy Aikman.

Numerous national media outlets publicized Ostergren's efforts. Public outcry followed and prompted promises from agencies to redact SSNs.

Redaction Blackhole

To redact SSNs, states use software to black out the section of the document where the number appears. Redaction software vendors typically guarantee 98 percent accuracy, but SSNs tend to crop up everywhere in documents, increasing the difficulty of redacting them. For example, some lenders required borrowers to write their SSNs beneath their signatures. Other lenders organized the documents by SSN within their office filing systems. To do that, they wrote the SSNs on the upper right corners of the documents.

Some documents have multiple pages, providing numerous spots for SSNs. Software can't always predict all the additional places lenders might have written those numbers.

The Florida Secretary of State's Office was among the first agencies to redact SSNs from online UCC documents. Jay Kassees, director of the Division of Corporations in the Florida Secretary of State's Office, was one of the public officials who had his

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.