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Redaction Failed - Travis County Puts Sensitive Records Back Online

David Bloys - News for Public Officials



Six months ago, Travis County (Texas) Clerk  Dana DeBeauvoir pulled  the county's huge collection of digitized documents from the county Website. At the time, she said, "my obligation as an elected official is to respond to legitimate public concern and to do everything within my authority to protect people now.


It was an act of courage and dedication to her citizens that was applauded by privacy advocates nationwide. It seems she has since abandoned her obligation to her constituents in favor of appeasing those outside the jurisdiction who want to profit from Travis County records.


Just one month after the November elections, the Travis County Democrat has once again exposed sensitive information about thousands of her constituents online.


Last week, DeBeauvoir told KXAN News, "Today I am happy to report that we are able to make available approximately 10 million images for the use of our online customers."


The documents include property deeds, marriage licenses, probate records and more. DeBeauvoir said that her decision to put the records online comes after an extensive project to remove individual personal information like Social Security numbers and birthdates the county had previously published online.


DeBeauvoir's announcement was good news for data miners and  aggregators worldwide who exploit the sensitive information provided by U.S. counties websites. It is very bad news for the citizens of Travis county.


DeBeauvoir thanked the anonymous "online customers" for their patience and understanding during the six months period when they were unable to access her constituents' records online.


"I thank the many regular online users who were both understanding and patient during this redaction process," DeBeauvoir said.


"The commitment to provide excellent customer service is a fundamental goal of the County Clerk's office, but the need to protect individual privacy outweighs the convenience of accessing records online," DeBeauvoir said.


These are noble words but they are inconsistent with the records DeBeauvoir has returned to the Internet. The County Clerk's effort to redact sensitive information so that the records would be appropriate for online publication has failed. While some Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers have been obscured from the online images, the clerk's website is once again exposing the personal information of thousands of citizens to anyone with a computer connection.


Everything a criminal needs.


News for Public Officials examined a few of the documents that have been processed through the DeBeauvoir's redaction process. What we found doesn't bode well for thousands of citizens whose sensitive information remains on the ten million documents the County has made available to criminals anywhere in the world.


After locating Travis County's new website, we were only two quick and convenient clicks away from the first of many  financial, medical, and personal records the county failed to find or redact. Take DB's records, for example.

DB is a sixty one-year-old long-time resident of Travis county. His full name, address, Social Security number, and date of birth were clearly visible on the  first page of the first document we examined on the DeBeauvoir's website. In subsequent pages, the document goes into detail about his financial, family and medical information. In spite of  the clerk's redaction efforts, everything a criminal might want to know about DB can be found in this one document


According to the document, DB has three brothers and a sister who live in Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Oklahoma. While he has been separated from his wife, Lilly,  for many years, he may still be married to her.


The document explains that DB currently receives Social Security disability payments but may soon come into a large sum of money from the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), the Texas Turnpike Authority (TTA) or an unnamed state agency. According to the document, DB may be entitled to collect "more than $75,000" from the TTA.  Highway expansion took his home and now the county website is taking his privacy.


The document includes a synopsis of DB's medical information which states he has suffered a series of strokes that one doctor has diagnosed as resulting in  moderate dementia consistent with Alzheimer's disease.


DB's single document isn't the only one to offer a gross breach of personal privacy. DeBeauvoir's redaction efforts appears to have missed this document entirely. According to her website, the database contains documents of this type on at least 27,446 current and former residents. We found some documents where the Social Security number had been obscured, but the medical, financial and family information remains clearly visible. This was true of almost every document type we examined. In a very short time we were able to extract dozens of Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, dates of birth, financial numbers and medical data from the county's supposedly redacted images.


We looked at several document types to learn what the redaction effort had removed and what had been missed. We found several examples of redacted Social Security numbers and almost as easily found examples where they were clearly exposed. In some documents we found Social Security numbers that were redacted from part of the document but were clearly visible elsewhere in the same document.


We found incidents where financial account numbers had been removed from one part of the document but were shown in other parts of the same record. Throughout the records we examined, we  found abundant medical and financial information as well as home addresses.


Redaction was partially successful in some records. In the case of one document belonging to a prominent District Judge the redaction efforts found and obscured a family member's Social Security number and driver's license number but left intact many sensitive details about the couple's life including their home address and financial information.


Signatures and notary seals were found on almost every document. Images of signatures and notary seals are all  that identity thieves in need to steal your home. The online images make it a simple matter for criminals to clip legitimate seals and signatures from county websites and electronically paste them on bogus deeds. The criminals are then able to sell the stolen home or take out new mortgages. Signatures found on the bogus deeds in Florida were from people who had died years earlier. Belgium authorities began their own investigation when their seals turned up on Florida's bogus deeds and the FBI has called mortgage and deed fraud the fastest growing white collar crime in America.


Researchers and security experts across the country who have examined Travis County's new and improved website are stunned by the DeBeauvoir's hit and miss approach to protecting the sensitive information.


B.J. Ostergren with The Virginia Watchdog commented, "I see that in some divorce decrees that certain financial information - credit card numbers and bank account numbers - and VIN numbers are redacted sometimes but then not other times. There is no rhyme or reason to their redaction scheme but they are certainly not protecting their citizens personal information."


Janice Forster, a paralegal with commented, "It just made me sick.  I saw the documents of one man who the state is trying to declare incompetent. So they publish his most personal information online? The information of a man who they say is without wit enough to safeguard it or even know to check for it?  If he's incompetent he has a lot of company."


Forster helps potential identity theft victims identify county breaches of personal data. Her work, aimed at helping citizens when the county fails them was recently featured in U.S.A. Today's Can Watchful Cybercitizens Curb ID Theft?


"Redaction software has little to do with redaction and, as we've seen across the nation, nothing to do with security" Forster said. "It is simply Phase II Salesmanship by software companies trying to undo the damage they've created, a false show of concern by our own registries, and a disgraceful waste of taxpayer funds."

According to Forster, "One has to question the relationship between our land registries and these software companies when the registries continue to spend thousands of dollars on software rather than taking a sure, immediate, and cost-free stance on behalf of their communities by simply unplugging from the internet.  County budgets beg to be examined.  There will be surprises."


Texas law does not require elected officials to post these records online in any form. The law requires County Clerks to preserve the records at the local courthouse. The demand to post the records online comes from people outside the jurisdiction who may find it  inconvenient or impossible to exploit the records without online access.


Counties which place their citizens' documents online turn their constituents into easy targets  foreign data miners or anyone who might otherwise find it impossible to exploit records while they are kept within the four walls of the courthouse. For example, Infinity Data, one of the largest KPO organizations in India, boasts  that they use the online records to produce 60,000 reports on Americans and their assets every month. According to Infinity's  website, the data mining company accesses 400 U.S. counties online and shares the information they find with their partners in China and the Philippines.


Protecting Citizens Can Be Simple, Cheap, and Effective


How can elected officials live up to what Clerk DeBeauvoir calls an "obligation as an elected official to respond to legitimate public concern and to do everything within my authority to protect people now?" The answer is simple, cheap and effective. She had the answer when she pulled the plug on the Travis County website last June. Her redaction alternative is ineffective, expensive and dangerous.


Protecting their constituents should be more important to local officials than the profit and convenience of people outside the jurisdiction.


Footnote: In 2005, DeBeauvoir testified before the Texas Legislature against requiring Texas Counties to redact sensitive information House Bill 3278. While the proposed legislation did not require redaction, it would have required Texas counties to remove the documents completely from the Internet. She told the Judicial Committee that the task of redacting sensitive information would be arduous if not impossible and that in any case, she was not allowed to alter official Public Records.


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