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Officials, Advocates Pull Plug on County Web Site

June-28-08PULASKI COUNTY ARKANSAS - After outraged citizens and privacy advocates notified authorities that the county web site was disseminating their private information to the world and following discussions with Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien shut down portions of the taxpayer funded site Friday. The site has exposed Social Security numbers and other sensitive data belonging to tens of thousands of local residents over the Internet since 2007.

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Critics say disabling only part of the site doesn't go far enough to protect local citizens. Publishing Public Records online (and the private data it contains) invites identity thieves from all over the world into the private lives of county residents.

 “It should all be taken offline,” said Bill Phillips, whose complaints prompted action by privacy advocates and the state’s attorney general.

“People can still get Social Security numbers from arrest reports and civil court documents, which remain on the site,” Phillips told reporters with Arkansas Online.

O’Brien, who was elected in 2004, told local reporters that altering civil and criminal court records requires a court order but stopped short of saying a court order is needed to simply remove images of court records from the county Web site. The records would still be available to the local public by visiting the courthouse where they have been safely kept for more than 100 years.

Phillips presented O’Brien with a list of records discovered on the county site earlier this month that showed the Social Security numbers of county residents, including current and former elected officials, judges and prosecuting attorneys. O’Brien reacted by selectively redacting Social Security numbers only from those records Phillips provided.  Unsatisfied with O’Brien’s response to his concerns, Phillips took the issue to the Quorum Court on Tuesday. Phillips said he doesn’t believe that any of the documents should be available on the Internet, regardless of whether they are redacted. But if the clerk’s office is planning to redact the information, he said, the entire Web site should be taken down until that process is completed.

Meanwhile, B.J. Ostergren, a Virginia woman who has successfully challenged online access to public documents across the country was contacted by a concerned citizen from Little Rock. In an email, Ostergren asked O’Brien to stop “spoon feeding criminals” from his taxpayer funded web site.

 “People you are putting at risk are police officers, Judges, Prosecutors, Doctors, single /abused women, the elderly, and others including dog catchers and zoning enforcement officials - even former Mayors,” the Virginia Watchdog wrote in an email to O’Brien. To prove her point, she attached examples of data breaches she found on the clerk’s site. Ostergren had very quickly gathered Social Security numbers belonging to influential Pulaski County citizens from the clerk’s site.

“I wonder just how long people from Nigeria or some other foreign country have been digging in your site downloading SSNs and then selling them in chat rooms, Ostergren wrote. Adding “the ID thieves from foreign countries all know about the U.S. Clerks' websites.”

After O’Brien refused Ostergren’s request she responded by posting to her Web site - www.thevirginiawatchdog.com – a document containing the Social Security number of a former local elected official. She said she hoped that by posting that information she could pressure O’Brien to end public access to all of the documents on the clerk’s Web site.

O’Brien admitted in emails to Ostergren and Phillips that he alone made the decision to post documents containing individuals Social Security numbers online.

“If your request is that our office quit supplying Public Records online then I am denying that request,“ O’Brien wrote to Ostergren, "And yes, I am accountable for this decision”.

In a separate email to Phillips, O’Brien said, “It is a policy decision I made to allow public documents to be viewed online.” “This is not a legal decision,” he added, “a different clerk might choose to not make documents available online."

O’Brien said the records have always been available for viewing at the courthouse and that there are members of the public who want public documents to be available online. He didn’t identity those individuals or say why a worldwide public is entitled to peruse Pulaski County records without making a trip to the courthouse. However, in an interview with Arkansas Online  he hinted that the decision to provide remote access was a matter of convenience for the clerk's office.

"Having the information online reduces the time the clerk’s office spends helping local residents at the courthouse," he said.

After learning late Friday that O’Brien had disconnected the land records database from the Web, Ostergren removed from her own website the records of judges and prominent citizens she had previously downloaded from the clerk’s site. However, she said Saturday night that if O’Brien continues to put citizen’s identities at risk on the court side of his web site, she may repost the judges files. If she wants to post examples of security breaches from the court side O’Brien’s site, she’ll have plenty to choose from according to Phillips.

“I would estimate that there are over 30,000 instances of the release of SSNs,”  Phillips wrote in an email to O’Brien addressing what he found in the court side of the clerk’s site.

The incidents are not limited to just those found in criminal cases. Online records of lawsuits involving divorce, probate, and custody are brimming with financial, medical, and other private information that is traditionally kept within the four walls of the courthouse - far away from the prying eyes of the Internet public.

Attorney General McDaniel pointed out in an interview with local reporters that “Even if he [O’Brien] had a technically legal argument for leaving these records online - and I don’t concede that at all because there are state and federal laws that protect people from having their Social Security numbers published - I thought he should err on the side of caution.”

“I encourage all Arkansans to watch their credit scores, bank statements and credit-card statements very closely,” McDaniel said. “It can be very time-consuming and very expensive to restore your credit if someone has attempted to steal your identity.”

The attorney general’s office works with consumers who are victims of identity theft to help them repair their credit. Last week, Gabe Holmstrom, a spokesman for McDaniel’s office, cautioned Arkansas officials to be wary of publishing county databases online. The AG’s office is currently researching the legality of posting public information online that includes Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.

“As far as other county clerks [who don’t already post such information online], we would advise them to be wary of publishing Social Security numbers or any other personal information without further guidance,” Holmstrom said.

“He wanted to play hardball, and I played hardball with him,” Ostergren said of O’Brien. “I’ve been criticized for posting people’s Social Security numbers, but sometimes you have to sacrifice one for the benefit of a million.”

 

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