Texas Attorney General Says Websites Could Land County Officials
David Bloys - News For Public Officials
In a long awaited opinion released last Wednesday, Texas Attorney
General Greg Abbott clarified the responsibilities of public
officials to protect confidential information contained in
documents under the clerk’s care. In particular, Abbott pointed
out that under various state and federal laws Clerks are
prohibited from displaying documents containing
numbers over the Internet.
According to the Opinion, laws that make Social Security numbers
confidential apply to Texas County Clerks. Distributing
confidential data under the Public Information Act is a criminal
offense. Section 552.147(a) of the PIA makes the offense a
criminal misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1000,
confinement in the county jail for up to six months, or both.
Under the Social Security Act, the disclosure of a SSN in
violation of Federal law is a felony.
In general, the PIA requires agencies to make information held by
the agency available to a member of the public upon specific
request. Government entities are allowed to release some
information without specific request through their websites but no
law mandates that they must do so, or should.
While the PIA provides that a governmental body may “voluntarily
make part or all of its information available to the public, the
government agencies are prohibited from disclosing information
that is confidential by law.
“People today need and expect their SSNs to be safeguarded by the
government and other entities that maintain this information, “
Abbott said, “SSNs are at the heart of identity theft and fraud,
and in today’s Internet world where information -- including
public government information can be instantly and anonymously
obtained with access to the worldwide web, the danger is even
Abbott noted, “For government records, Texas law outside of the
PIA explicitly protects SSNs in countless ways. Furthermore, the
PIA itself contains several exceptions to required disclosure of
SSNs. These exceptions include the confidential information of
peace officers, crime victims, government employees; and
volunteers, employees and clients of shelter centers.
The PIA’s primary purpose is to make available to the public
“complete information about the affairs of Texas government and
the official acts of public officials and employees.” This purpose
is not advanced when a living person’s SSN is released to the
“If the Texas legislature has seen fit to protect SSN’s of
convicted sex offenders, surely the Legislature intended for
regular law-abiding citizens to be entitled to the same
protection.” Abbott said.
On the question of posting documents containing confidential
information on the Internet, Abbott first cautions that
distributing confidential information is a criminal offense and
notes that public officials are not required to distribute records
over the Internet. If the records are to appear on county
websites, “the clerk must redact the
SSNs of living persons from any record subject to the PIA.
Abbott’s 13 page in-depth analyses of current laws goes into
detail about the reasons and logic behind federal and state laws
that prohibit individuals and government agencies from releasing
In addition to
confidential records on government websites, opinion #
GA-0519 answers questions concerning:
SSN's in the public records
Texas Clerks to Redact
Presumption that a
requested SSN belongs to a living person