Dangerous Convenience Dangerous Convenience

The state wants to do something, but they don't pay for it. That's quite common, at least in Virginia."

He predicts it will cost the county more than $2 million to process its 38 million records.

"In government, you hate to throw good money after something bad, but this country has spent millions of dollars on a local, state and national level for the pandemic bird flu that hasn't come," Frey said. "We spent the same amount on Y2K, and the end of the world that was going to happen on Y2K. Government almost is forced to deal with these issues, whether they are real or not, if they are perceived by the public. If you don't deal with them and something does happen, you're going to be held to blame."


Enabling Researchers

The obvious question is why agencies didn't redact SSNs from online public documents in the first place. Starting in the '90s, lenders often required borrowers to include SSNs on UCC forms, said Young. UCC researchers argued SSNs ensured research accuracy and timeliness. For example, if a researcher looked up a man named Kevin Stone and found 10 people with that name, narrowing by SSN would have been easier than searching with other pieces of information.

Agencies wanted those researchers to use the online databases, rather than visiting offices in person, so they kept the numbers in the online documents.

Before the California Secretary of State's Office awarded its redaction contract, it redacted by hand all but the last four digits of SSNs to appease UCC researchers. Then the winning redaction vendor redacted all of the digits. If an identity thief has the birth date, he or she could use an algorithm to reconstruct the entire number using only the last four digits, said Carol Foglesong, assistant comptroller of Orange County, Fla., and president of the Property Records Industry Association.

According to Mark Mishoe, chief deputy of the Oklahoma County, Okla., Clerk's Office, the oil and gas industry pleaded with the office to keep SSNs online. He said oil and gas mineral interest records contained less information than normal land records. Researchers of these records claimed SSNs were often the only information enabling them to verify interest ownership. Nevertheless, the Clerk's Office redacted the SSNs in 2007.

Pescatore rejects the notion that publishing SSNs to accommodate researchers was ever a reasonable policy.

"Should we really endanger the citizens' information to make it easier for the researchers?" said Pescatore.

By 2005, SSNs nearly vanished from incoming UCC documents in Maryland, according to Young. He said Maryland typically gets 40,000 to 50,000 UCCs annually, and roughly 40 percent of them came with SSNs before 2005. After 2005, privacy concerns caused a dramatic shift among lenders away from requiring SSNs on those documents. Now Maryland receives about 50 UCC documents with SSNs per year from "old-time lenders," said Young.

He contends that lenders nationwide rarely require SSNs. The California Secretary of State's Office urges people to make sure their UCC documents don't have SSNs before submitting them to the state.

Online Death Certificates

Concerns about personal information in online public documents don't end with SSNs. Death certificates aren't automatically public records, but they become that when citizens submit them to county recorders' offices. Some states, such as Florida forbid online birth certificate images due to privacy concerns.

"It varies dramatically across the United States," Foglesong said.

Other states, such as Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, allow those images online.

The Maricopa County, Ariz., Recorder's Office publishes death certificates with SSNs redacted, but a lot of information attractive to identity thieves remains.

A person's death certificate is his or her personal history in a nutshell. It contains a spouse's name, a mother's

Andy Opsahl  | 

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