Treasure trove

Broward County, Fl. Maricopa County, Az. Fort Bend County, Tx. Three counties, separated by hundreds of miles – with something in common: They’re among potentially hundreds of counties in several states that in recent years have made Social Security numbers, driver’s licence information, bank account numbers and other personally sensitive data belonging to residents available to anyone in the world with Internet access.

The exposure follows a failure to redact sensitive information from land records and other public documents posted on the Internet and makes county Web sites a veritable treasure trove of information for identity thieves and other criminals, according to a number of privacy advocates.

“These sites are just spoon feeding criminals the information they need,” said B.J. Ostergren, a privacy advocate based in Richmond, Va. “But no one appears to be seeing it and nobody’s changing the laws.”

Among the pieces of personally identifiable information made available from county web sites by Ostergren and other privacy advocates were: Congressman Tom Delay’s Social Security number on a tax lien document; the Social Security numbers for Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his wife on a quit claim deed from 1999; drivers’ licence numbers, addresses, vehicle registration information, height, weight and eye colour of individuals arrested for traffic violations; names and dates of birth of minors from final divorce decrees and family court documents; and even complete copies of death certificates with Social Security numbers, dates of birth and cause of death. (The Social Security numbers for Bush and his wife have been redacted and are no longer available online.)

“All of this information is available to anyone sitting in a cafe anywhere in the world,” said David Bloys, a retired private investigator who publishes a newsletter called News for Public Officials in Shallowater, Tex. “It’s a real security threat.”

Those concerns follow news that personally identifiable information belonging to an unknown number of current and former residents of Florida is available online because sensitive information has not been removed from public records posted on county web sites in that state.

It’s unclear exactly how many of the 3,600 county governments in the United States do the same thing, said Mark Monacelli, president of the Property Records Industry Association, a Durham, N.C.-based industry group set up to facilitate the recording of, and access to, public property information.

But it’s safe to assume that many of them are posting sensitive data online, based on the trend by local governments to provide web-based access to public records, said Darity Wesley, CEO of Privacy Solutions, a privacy consultancy for the real estate industry based in San Diego. “I think a lot of [county] recorders have been putting [images of] public land records on the Internet without any concern about who has access to it.”

But while the public access efforts raise privacy concerns, those worries need to be tempered with an understanding of the benefits from easier access to public land records, according to both Wesley and Monacelli.

“This whole topic of access to information is an issue that we as a nation are facing,” Monacelli said. “We have real estate professionals, title companies, attorneys and lenders who need this information for commerce purposes.” He argued that easier information-sharing enables more efficient mortgage and loan processes, for example.

“There’s a real need to keep the information flowing,” Wesley said, adding that while there’s also a need to protect data “at all costs,” there’s little evidence so far that the public availability of personal information on government sites has contributed to identity theft. For most identity thieves, the effort involved in sifting through millions of public records for sensitive information is simply not worth it, she said.

“There’s a lot of value in public records, and shutting down access to them” over privacy concerns would be a step backwards, she said. “Rather than wrap a lot of fear and sensationalism” around the issue, what is needed is an informed discussion of the issue by legislators and privacy advocates.

Sue Baldwin, director of the Broward County Records Division., said that “professional list-making companies have always purchased copies of records and data from recorders to use in the creation of specialized marketing lists, which they sell.” she said. So, too, have title insurance underwriters and credit-reporting agencies. “Land records are public all over the country. This is not a new situation.” 062336