Allegations of Official Misconduct
Debates Who Can Display Social Security Numbers Online
By David Bloys - News for Public Officials - June 22,
Maybe you’ve never heard of B.J. Ostergren, but she knows a lot about
you. She knows where you live and how much you pay to live there. She
has your driver’s license number, your signature, credit card and bank
numbers and she has your Social Security number. Likely as not, she has
the goods on your parents and children as well. She gathered it all from
government websites. She wants the state to stop displaying your private
data online but a new law in Virginia says government agencies have an
exclusive right to display private data contained in Public Records
online. Now Ostergren
is taking her battle to federal court.
Ostergren has gleaned from online
government records the Social Security numbers of many prominent people
— Jeb Bush, Colin Powell, Porter Goss and Tom DeLay among them — and
posted the documents on her own Web site to demonstrate
government’s failure to protect individuals’ privacy.
"I'm not going after the little guy, I'm going
after people of prominence that could have some power to do something
about this," Ostergren said.
Ostergren’s website, TheVirginiaWatchdog.com advocates against making
personal information available on the Internet. The website includes
Public Records obtained by Ostergren from government websites that
include the Social Security Numbers of public officials. By posting
these documents, Ostergren hopes to illustrate the type of information
available on government websites, and to prod officials to take action.
Perhaps most offensive to Virginia
officials are the
links Ostergren posts on her site that document just how easy it is
to find documents containing Social Security numbers and other private
data belonging to Virginia's own legislators, judges and county
In March, Virginia legislators reacted to Ostergren’s website by
amending a state law prohibiting anyone except government agencies
from posting private data online. Under the
previous law, individuals were prohibited from disclosing Social
Security numbers obtained from private sources, but millions of Public
Records containing Social Security numbers and other private information
are available in Virginia on the state’s own websites.
Government websites have become a rich source
of data needed by terrorists, identity thieves and stalkers.
Experts say terrorism and identity theft go hand in
hand. The al-Qaida training manual US troops found on a laptop computer
in Afghanistan includes provisions for trainees to leave camp with five
fake personas, says
Collins, an identity theft expert, who uses a copy of the manual
to train law enforcement officials. Terrorists are regularly schooled in
the art of subsisting off credit card fraud while living in the United
States, Collins says. The manual also instructs would-be terrorists on
the easiest way to find the information they need.
According to former
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on January 15, 2003, the
al Qaeda training manual tells its readers, "Using public sources openly
and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at
least 80 percent of all information required about the enemy."
The concept of
document security by paid or free subscription to government websites
has also proven deadly for at least two young women.
Amy Boyer and Rebecca Schaeffer
both lost their lives as a result of stalkers accessing their
information through government websites.
murder of TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer resulted in the often-ignored
National Driver Protection Act which makes it illegal for companies to
buy driver records from state governments. Cases abound of government
websites failing to protect constituents when publishing private data
contained in Public Records online.
In an advisory dated
August 8th, 2006, Ken Schrad, Director of Virginia's Division of Information Resources
announced that the State's Bureau of Insurance Website
published the Social
Security numbers of every insurance agent licensed in the state. He
advised the state's 202,000 agents, many of whom sell identity theft
insurance, to watch for any unusual activity on their bank or other
financial accounts that might result from the massive breach.
Under the new law, Virginia citizens are prohibited from repeating
the state’s mistakes by publishing copies of public documents containing
Social Security numbers on private websites or Blogs. But the law allows
Virginia’s “official” websites to continue trafficking in identities
with almost complete abandon. Virtually anyone-- anywhere in the world
with an internet connection and twenty five dollars for a subscription
to the county website may be granted remote online access to your Social
Security number and other private data.
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia
filed a lawsuit on Ostergren’s behalf in federal court in Richmond.
Ostergren is challenging the law that targets her website on grounds it
violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech..
She has launched a federal lawsuit that questions who if anyone, has the
right to distribute your private/public papers online for the entire
world to see. At issue is who has the right to traffic in your identity.
When Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine signed
the bill on March 11, he and others touted the bill as an effort to curb
identity theft, suffered by an estimated 9 million Americans each year.
But even the lawmaker behind the bill (Sen.
R. Edward Houck) acknowledged that stopping people like Ostergren
from publishing the Social Security numbers —
not protecting Virginians from identity theft
— was the true goal of the legislation.
Ostergren says her tactic of bringing bold and
personal awareness to elected officials has worked in other states, such
as Vermont, New York, New Mexico, California, Ohio and Florida, where
she has fought to get personal information removed from online records.
Only in her home state have lawmakers
responded by unanimously passing legislation making Ostergren’s tactics
illegal and punishable by a $2,500 civil penalty.
Ironically, the questioned statute takes effect on July 1, the same
date by which circuit court clerks across the state are required to make
all land records available on the Internet. Land records consist of
deeds and mortgage documents, but may also include legal judgments, such
as divorce decrees and probate, that often contain Social Security
Numbers and other personal information. The ACLU is seeking an
injunction prohibiting the state from enforcing the law against
“The ACLU is an advocate for laws that prevent the government from
allowing Social Security Numbers to appear on publicly accessible
websites,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “but
when the government puts records online that do contain the numbers, it
can’t then turn around and prevent the public from disseminating them.”
“Instead of the Virginia General Assembly dealing with the real
problem of Social Security numbers being put on Web sites by circuit
court clerks, they decided to target me because I posted theirs,”
Ostergren told the Washington Examiner.
“This is a wrong-end-up law that attempts to conceal the fact that
Virginia’s lawmakers have failed to prevent Social Security Numbers from
being placed online in the first place,” added Willis. “If Social
Security Numbers were removed from Public Records when they are placed
online, there would be no need for this law.”
While Virginia already has a law requiring Social Security numbers to
be redacted from documents posted on the Internet, the legislature
failed to fund the privacy statute. Redaction
efforts in other states have proven to be largely ineffective and
The ACLU lobbied against the passage of Virginia’s new law
prohibiting anyone except the government from posting Social Security
numbers online and asked the Governor to veto it.
When she found out in 2002 that every locality in Virginia would
begin posting personal information online, she started
The Virginia Watchdog from her Hanover County home.
The lawsuit, which alleges that the law violates Ostergren's First
Amendment rights, points out that shutting down Ostergren’s website will do
nothing to protect Social Security Numbers, since all of the documents
on the site are also available on government websites. In the 1989 case
The Florida Star v. B.J.F., the Supreme Court observed that
“where the government has made certain information publicly available,
it is highly anomalous to sanction persons other than the source
[government websites] of its release.”
Today millions of people from all over the world routinely search and
seize our most sensitive documents from government websites.
records can then be used by international criminals to take your
property, homes - even your life. Surely
this wasn't what the framers of the constitution had in mind when they
promised in the Fourth Amendment, "The right of the people to be secure in their
persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and
seizures, shall not be violated..."
ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg is providing
legal representation to Ostergren. A copy of the ACLU’s complaint can be
found online at
Update: To learn the
judges decision please read: