Liberty Coalition discovers 163 local social security numbers online

By Julie N. Chang | The News Herald

Published: September 5, 2008

MORGANTON - For the past five years, East Burke High School's website exposed 163 staff members' Social Security numbers and other personal information on the Internet.

Liberty Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that searches for security breaches on the Internet, found the information using simple keywords in Yahoo's search engine. Spokesman Aaron Titus said the file contained personal information including names, Social Security numbers, addresses, phone numbers, job titles, email ad-dresses and unlisted phone numbers of 163 teachers, bus drivers, custodians and other staff members.

On Aug. 27, the group informed the school district about the problem.

Liberty Coalition said school officials removed the file within 20 minutes and started working to clear search engine caches.

Before Liberty Coalition publicly announces a security breach, Titus said it makes sure someone removes the file from the Web. Despite this, he said, it is impossible to guarantee someone did not archive a copy elsewhere on the Internet.

Burke County Public Schools Superintendent David Burleson said it seemed likely the school uploaded the file to the web in 2003 when posting the 2003-2004 East Burke High School student directory.

"We're not aware of anyone accessing the information," he said.

Burleson will meet with Rick Sherrill, East Burke's principal in 2003 and now the school district's associate super-intendent, to try to learn more about how the file got online.

Burleson said all 163 people on the list, including those that no longer work for the school, received a letter Friday telling them the website exposed their personal information. The letter described the circumstances, outlined what Burke County Public Schools is doing to protect the victims and provided information on action people should take such as checking their credit rating and financial accounts.

The News Herald made several attempts to contact 2003 staff members for reactions and responses. None of those contacted wished to make statements.

Liberty Coalition said the school district in the future should replace Social Security numbers with employee numbers, minimize the number of staff with access to private information, identify staff members who do not need full access, hold mandatory staff training on privacy and proper handling of information, hire an identity-theft protection company to provide free credit-protection services to people whose data was online and perform a complete scan of school servers in the next month to make certain no other personal information is at risk.

The school district and the State Employees Credit Union will have a meeting Wednesday at East Burke to talk about preventing and responding to identity theft and to address people's questions and concerns.

Burleson said he's not aware of any other security breach like this in the county school system.

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