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The Arizona Secretary of State's Office pulled the plug on Internet documents containing the Social Security numbers of thousands of Arizonans on Friday just hours after a privacy rights activist B.J. Ostergren informed officials they were "spoon-feeding criminals."
The Social Security numbers could be viewed on the Secretary of State's Web on digital images of financial documents, such as state and federal lien statements and UCC filings. Deputy Secretary of State Kevin Tyne said his office pulled half a million documents but he didn't know how many contained Social Security numbers.
BJ Ostergren, who has made it her mission to raise awareness about identity theft, has convinced officials in Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and most recently California to take steps to protect citizens from careless compromises by state websites. She called the Arizona Secretary of State's Office last Friday morning to complain about its Website.
By Friday afternoon, the office had removed all the links.
"I'm proud to say that we took action immediately," Tyne said. "We're not running from this. We're trying to do the right thing."
Ostergren said the Secretary of State's Office should have acted before she called. She has little tolerance for officials that refuse to take the sensitive documents offline. A call from Ostergren might seem as frightening to government bureaucrats as seeing the crew of 60 Minutes pull into a corporate parking lot is for some businessmen.
Sometimes called The Virginia Watchdog, after her popular Website, her method of alerting citizens to the risks of identity theft has included re-publishing documents she finds online that include Social Security numbers of elected officials. Her list of prominent politicians includes such well known names as Colin Powell, Porter Goss and Jeb Bush. In addition, she has exposed hundreds of state and county officials who have refused to protect their own citizens.
“I’ll take it down when they do,” she says.
Last year, Ostergren’s efforts helped trigger a class action lawsuit that led to a political bloodbath that rippled throughout the state all the way to the Ohio governor’s office.
Last month, Soren Tjernell, senior legislative assistant to California Assemblyman Dave Jones, had been hunting down breaches of personal information by public officials. Ostergren pointed Tjernell to Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s Website where Bowen’s predecessor had been selling the sensitive documents to anyone with an Internet connection, a credit card, and six bucks.
After Assemblyman Jones blew the whistle on the Secretary’s Website. Within days, Bowen pulled the plug on her predecessor's website and came out in favor of a bill introduced by Jones that will put an end to government websites in California selling documents that contain the sensitive numbers.
Arizona has the highest per-capita rate of identity theft complaints nationwide, and Phoenix has the same rank among the nation's metropolitan areas, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Recently Maricopa County began redacting some sensitive information after Ostergren published documents she found on the Maricopa County website that contained Social Security numbers of prominent citizens including the Chief of Police.
Tyne said his office has made fighting identity theft a priority, including by no longer requiring people to disclose their Social Security numbers on some of the documents that were previously displayed online. But Ostergren found many documents from 2006 containing Social Security numbers.
He said his office decided to pull the documents after Ostergren and others called and after consulting other states that have confronted the issue.
He said the office didn't remove the documents earlier because it was trying to maintain access to important financial information that is public record.
Gail Dent, whose Social Security number had been available on the Arizona Website, says the information never should have been published online in the first place. She and her husband want a formal apology from Secretary of State Jan Brewer.
"Our brains are bursting in frustration at this whole deal," she told reporters. "No one's personal information should be divulged without their personal permission to do so. I don't care if you're the biggest deadbeat in the world."
“Someone should have pulled the plug on this year ago and someone needs to take the fall for it and resign or be fired”, Ostergren said “Too many people were unknowingly put at risk by the Secretary of State's office”.