Texas Attorney General Says Websites Could Land County Officials in Jail

David Bloys - News For Public Officials

Feb-23-07

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 Social Security 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 greater”

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 public.

“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 confidential information.

 

In addition to confidential records on government websites, opinion # GA-0519 answers questions concerning:

  • Confidentiality of SSN's in the public records

  • Authorization of Texas Clerks to Redact

  • Certification of "redacted" documents

  • Presumption that a requested SSN belongs to a living person

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