Identity details found on state site

July 16, 2006

By Joshua Cogswell

Until Friday morning, the secretary of state's Web site was a potential gold mine for would-be identity thieves.

More than 2 million documents - thousands containing individuals' Social Security numbers - called Uniform Commercial Code filings had been available for public perusal.

But after calls from concerned residents, privacy advocates and The Clarion-Ledger, the secretary of state's office on Friday disabled links to the documents.

UCC filings are necessary when a person puts up collateral to secure a loan. The information was put online to make it easier for lenders to access the information.

"All these documents are public documents. Businesses, banks, law firms rely on this every single day," said David Blount, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office. "It's also vitally important we protect people's privacy."

The problem is not limited to the Mississippi secretary of state's office. As more government agencies across the country get on the Internet and begin posting public records, they must walk a tightrope between keeping records open and protecting citizens' privacy.

Last year, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft at a cost of roughly $5 billion, according to the U.S. Postal Service. There were more than 1,458 reported claims in 2005, up from 1,084 in 2003, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

B.J. Ostergren, a privacy activist who founded The Virginia Watchdog, has been pushing local and state governments from Virginia to Oregon to take such records off the Internet.

Ostergren alerted both the secretary of state's office and The Clarion-Ledger to the problem last week.

"I am for open records at the courthouse," Ostergren said. "I'm just not for spoon-feeding criminals on the World Wide Web."

Steve Holland, a Brandon insurance salesman, agreed. He didn't know his Social Security number was so readily available.

When reached by phone Thursday, Holland said he would be calling the secretary of state's office first thing Friday morning. The filing that contained his Social Security number was taken down Friday.

But Holland says all the filings need to be taken down and people need to know that such personal information is available online.

"If some of them see your Social Security number, they can really do some damage," Holland said.

Bill Thompson, assistant secretary of state for business services, said the office has been aware of the problem since 2002.

Thompson said the agency honors requests from people who wanted their Social Security numbers taken off.

But trying to remove or alter all of the documents with Social Security numbers, Thompson said, would be cumbersome because each of the 2 million documents would have to be examined individually.

Thompson said the agency is exploring software that could take out the information automatically while preserving an original copy.

State Sen. Lynn Posey, D-Union Church, also was surprised to learn his Social Security number was online.

Posey said he would push for Legislation that would require any public documents posted online to be free of Social Security numbers.

"I don't think the Legislature would approve of having people's Social Security numbers posted on anybody's Web site," Posey said.

Barbara Powell, director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, acknowledges the need to keep certain private information, like Social Security numbers, out of the public domain.

She just hopes lawmakers don't use it as an excuse to limit access to public documents.

Powell cautions lawmakers to adopt the same approach they used with voting rolls.

The Legislature declared that Social Security numbers are not part of the public record, but allowed public access to the voting rolls themselves.

"It is one of the tensions that legislators are dealing with," Powell said. "There is a desire to protect people's privacy, especially today, but also a democracy needs to have open records."

In the case of the UCC filings, the documents are off the Web site indefinitely. People can still request copies from the secretary of state's office.

Gray Wiggers, spokesman for Trustmark National Bank, said the lenders at Trustmark use the secretary of state's Web site to make sure the collateral they use in their loans does not have existing liens on it.

Consumer protection should be the top priority, he said.

"We would think eliminating Social Security numbers in any databases would be in the consumers' best interest," Wiggers said.

Shortly after disabling the links Friday morning, Blount said the secretary of state's office already had received calls from other lending institutions who use the records extensively and depend on easy access to the records.

"The balance we have to strike is the importance of protecting privacy while efficiently serving banks and businesses," Blount said. "It's a tricky situation."

main page ATTRITION feedback