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County level security breaches aiding ID thieves, stalkers and terrorists.

David Bloys - News for Public Officials

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Updated Oct 15 2012

 

County Websites across the country contain millions of searchable records brimming with all the ingredients identity thieves, stalkers, and terrorists  need to steal your identity, stalk your children, or target American infrastructure.

The problem pits County officials, their constituents, and companies hoping to profit from the digitized records against each other.

A virtual mall for identity thieves

Recently, Monica Hatcher with the Miami Herald wrote a report on how County Websites facilitate identity thieves.  Hatcher begins her study by determining just how easy it is for anyone, from anywhere, to gather sensitive information on Florida residents. Using Websites offered by two County Clerks, (Miami-Dade and Broward), a quick search revealed the Social Security numbers of several notable citizens including, Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, Miami Herald publisher Jesús Díaz Jr. and Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor.

Florida is home to some of the most liberal Public Records laws and counties there were among the first to publish the sensitive documents online.''The government down there is spoon-feeding criminals all over this world,'' said B.J. Ostergren, a Virginia-based privacy advocate who has brought national attention to the security threat posed by online records. ``What they should have done was make the clerks and recorders close down the websites until they finished redaction.''

In 2010, B.J. Ostergren, founder of the The Virginia Watchdog uncovered the Social Security numbers of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his wife on the Miami-Dade County Website.

Since 2002, the Florida clerk's offices began redacting personal information in the documents when the affected individual submits a written request. How many people know about the option is unknown. The Governor exercised his right only last year.

While other sensitive information about the Florida Governor and his family remains on the County Website, the Bush's Social Security numbers have been removed. It was too little, too late. Today, the numbers are available on Websites all over the world. This information combined with information still available on the county Website is all an identity thief would need to take control of the Governor's identity.

Actually, depending on what an identity thief has in mind, criminals may have little need for anything EXCEPT what is available after expensive redaction efforts. A Social Security number might be handy, but it is not necessary for many of the most damaging kinds of of identity theft.

Deed fraud, for example, is rampant in Florida and spreading across the country as more counties go online. County records displayed on the Internet provide everything a criminal needs to steal your home. It is as easy as clipping an image of an old signature and current notary seal from the County Website and pasting them onto a bogus deed or mortgage. The fraudulent deed can then be filed with the county by courier, mail, or in some cases online.

If you are thinking title insurance will protect you, think again. Title insurance guarantees that there are no fraudulent deeds at the time you buy the property but offers no protection when someone assumes your identity to sell your property.  Victims are on their own and will have to go to court to prove they are the rightful owners. Identity thieves aren't the only criminals that have learned how easy is to anonymously exploit the so-called "Public Records".

A 'stalker's paradise'

Despite their relative value to some identity thieves, privacy advocates believe Social Security numbers are not the most potentially damaging information available from online Public Records. Stalkers can gain an advantage over their victims using information gained from state and county Websites.

In 1999 Liam Youens used information he found on a Website to stalk and murder Amy Boyer, a woman he had been obsessed with since Junior High School.Youens last entry on his Website before murdering Amy was, “I found an internet site to do that, and to my surprize (sic) everything else under the Sun. Most importantly: her current employment. It's accually (sic) obsene (sic) what you can find out about a person on the internet. "

Two weeks after the young woman's funeral, identity thieves used the dead woman's identity to run up several thousand dollars in credit card debt.

Long before Amy's murder, the 1989 murder of TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer in California was attributed to the easy access to digitized Department of Motor Vehicle records  in California. Shaeffer's murder sparked Federal Legislators to pass the Driver's Protection Act. The law targets anyone who "knowingly obtains, discloses or uses personal information from a motor vehicle record,"  and makes it illegal for companies to buy driver records from state governments.

Earlier this year, Fidelity Federal Bank & Trust of West Palm Beach agreed to pay a $50 million in a class-action lawsuit for buying 565,600 names of motorists from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles from 2000 to 2003. Fidelity Federal paid a penny a name — $5,656. In one potentially huge class action, several motorists have sued data gatherers ChoicePoint, Experian, Lexis Nexis, First American Corp. and a number of other companies for breaking the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act by buying driver records from Florida.

A Terrorist's Spy Shop

According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on January 15, 2003, an al Qaeda training manual recovered in Afghanistan 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."

Even before the training manual was discovered, Federal agencies warned that al Qaeda was using state and local websites. The National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) issued an advisory that cautioned municipalities to review the content of their websites to protect against the inadvertent disclosure of critical infrastructure information. The NIPC had received reports that infrastructure-related data was being accessed through the Internet from sites around the world.

In Jan 2002, the U. S. Department of Transportation's Office of Intelligence and Security issued a similar warning stating that, "information has been developed which indicates Al-Qa'ida members may be using municipal and state websites in the U. S. to obtain information on local energy infrastructures, water reservoirs, dams, highly-enriched uranium storage sites, nuclear and gas facilities, and emergency fire and rescue response procedures."

In October of 2004 Federal law enforcement authorities notified school districts in six states  that a computer disc found in Iraq contained photos, floor plans and other information about their schools. The downloaded data found by the U.S. military in July — all publicly available on the Internet — included an Education Department report guiding schools on how to prepare and respond to a crisis, said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity in an interview with the Associated Press.

Subsequent to the Federal law enforcement warning, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services issued a policy statement that recommended school officials "Discourage policies which make routes, schedules and locations available on the
Internet".

Terrorists don't have spy satellites or spy planes to help them, but terrorists, can sit in an Internet cafe in Iran or a public library anywhere in the world and learn from county Websites a wide variety of details about targets such as transportation facilities, nuclear power plants, public buildings, airports, schools, ports, power lines , chemical companies, nuclear and chemical disposal plants and the people who work there.

 

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