Allegations of Official Misconduct
Officials, Advocates Pull Plug on County Web
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
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.
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
“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.”