Dangerous Convenience Dangerous Convenience

SSN posted on Ostergren's site. He said Ostergren still calls him to report SSNs remaining on the site.

"She doesn't tell you where it is because she figures you'll just go in and remove that one and won't look at the rest of the database," Kassees said. "You're stuck going through 5 million records to try to find it. It's like a needle in a haystack."

Agencies can't expect 100 percent accuracy with the current redaction technology, he said.

"It's one of those things that I'm probably never going to be finished with," Kassees said. "We're asking the public to help us. Our database is public, and most folks look at their stuff more frequently than we look at it. We're hoping they'll spot it and help us remove it. We've gotten a couple of calls, but since 2005, I've probably fielded four or five calls."

Unfunded Mandates

Governments also struggle to fund redaction initiatives. For instance, the Virginia Legislature authorized county clerks to redact SSNs in 2007, but didn't offer counties funding. The Legislature set up a program allowing counties to use $4 of the revenue from each civil filing made in circuit courts for the redaction process. However, that won't provide nearly enough revenue to cover the cost, according to Paul Ferguson, circuit court clerk of Arlington County, Va. He said the county agreed to make up the difference, but many smaller localities likely can't afford that.

"Since the Legislature mandated this, maybe they'll come up with the extra funds as the deadline of 2010 approaches," Ferguson said.

Fairfax County, Va., Circuit Court Clerk John Frey will soon begrudgingly redact SSNs from the county's Web site. Frey defends current state practices requiring users to subscribe to an account with a username, password and monthly fee to access court documents, like UCCs. The user must submit signed, notarized documents before getting an account. Fairfax's monthly charge is $25, but amounts vary by county. Frey argues that process is sufficient to deter identity theft.

Frey said redacting SSNs from public documents would do little to reduce identity theft. He insists easier ways of stealing identities already exist.

"The odds are that you are more likely to have your identity stolen by using your credit card at lunch than by somebody who is going to take the time to find SSNs on public documents. It takes less than a second [for a restaurant worker] to swipe your card through a second machine that grabs your information off the strip on the back," Frey said.

John Pescatore, vice president of Gartner, disputes that reasoning. He likens it to someone giving up hope of reducing carbon emissions and buying a Hummer.

"[Online SSNs] are making identity theft easier, and the game is to make it harder. Nothing is going to make it impossible," Pescatore said.

Frey said he knew of no identity theft case involving SSNs in Fairfax's online database. The county's system can track the documents each user account accesses, if necessary. Frey argues those user accounts could help police if an incident occurred.

Current redaction practices typically run the documents through a software-based automated process, and then each document is searched manually for additional SSNs. Maryland began its redaction process in March 2008 and expects to finish in five months. The project will cost $140,000, according to Robert Young, associate director of the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted against directly funding Frey's redaction project in Virginia. However, they allowed him to increase the charge users pay to access public documents and use the extra money to fund the project.

"I've gone to the board, and they're not really sympathetic toward giving me money for an unfunded state mandate," Frey said. "

Andy Opsahl  | 

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