Public computer exposed Hampton residents' data

July 14, 2006

By Kimball Payne,0,2456559.story?track=mostemailedlink

Hampton's treasurer and chief of police ripped a public computer out of the Hampton Circuit Court building Wednesday, after they found hundreds of Social Security numbers on display.

Police officers are breaking down the computer's hard drive and trying to determine how many Social Security numbers were in the database and how many people had access to them. The computer appeared to include data on homeowners from across the city, but not everyone's Social Security number.

During a 20-minute search late last week, a Daily Press reporter found and printed - for free - the full names, Social Security numbers and home addresses of a slew of prominent city officials and their spouses.

The computer had data on two General Assembly members, six City Council members, the mayor, city manager, treasurer, commissioner of the revenue and head of economic development. "This is one of the biggest IT (information technology) screw ups I've ever heard of," said Commissioner of the Revenue Ross A. Mugler. "I'm in awe that this could happen. I'm really outraged."

The rise of the Internet has triggered a new focus on identity theft, because personal and bank data is consistently zapped through cyberspace with no completely reliable safeguards. This is the third major breach of sensitive information in the past six months and the second case in Hampton Roads.

In early May a laptop with sensitive information on about 26.5 million veterans was stolen in Montgomery County, Md. And in February, Old Dominion University officials in Norfolk informed more than 600 students that their names and Social Security numbers had been accidentally placed on the Internet.

Open access to Social Security numbers is especially disturbing because those nine digits are arguably the nation's most common identifier.

"It is the key to the kingdom without a doubt," said Robert Siciliano, the CEO of an identity theft security Web site. "Anyone that has those numbers can basically become you and function as you."

Siciliano said those nine numbers give a stranger the ability to get a loan, passport, credit card, bank account, marriage license, mortgage and nearly anything else down to a video store membership.

"Anything you can do they can do," he said.

Fox Hill resident Albert Viera was searching through the records in the clerk's office last week when his own Social Security number jumped off the page.

"What shocked me was that there were columns after columns of them," Viera said. "Some things slip through the cracks, but this was a gaping abyss."

The computer was put in the court records building sometime early in 2002 to help title searchers go through public real estate records to make sure that no back taxes were left on a property. The clerk of court maintains a handful of other computers in the office, but the computer that was compromised held information from the treasurer's office. Treasurer Molly Ward first heard about the breach around 2 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon.

"The instant anybody told me, I walked over there with the chief of police and we dismantled the thing ourselves," Ward said. "We're taking it very seriously. That's why there is a criminal investigation."

As a member of the Board of Visitors at ODU, Mugler has seen firsthand the fallout from compromised information. He said that the security breach was especially troubling because his department collects much of the information in the database.

Similar breaches across the country have prompted major reactions from businesses and agencies. Current law could require that Hampton send warning letters to notify every person whose information could have been stolen. That move could trigger a tremendous, expensive undertaking if information about the city's thousands of property owners were on the computer.

State Del. Tom Gear, R-Hampton, reacted angrily Thursday and called for swift action when he was read his own Social Security number over the telephone.

"You can hardly watch the news anymore without something being on there about identity theft. I hope they catch them (whoever is responsible for the breach) and lock them up."

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