Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Privacy advocate, ACLU hit new Virginia privacy law as misguided

As many know, California passed a law (which was signed) called AB 1168 (Jones) last year that requires state and local government agencies, as well as all colleges and universities in California, to honor consumer expectations of personal privacy by safeguarding Social Security numbers.

In Virginia they're apparently not so lucky. In fact, its worse than that, as the state has decided to target privacy advocates rather than the laws that leave the door open for identity theft.

This one is really hard to believe people, so let's go to Computerworld for the story:

A Virginia-based privacy advocate who has been fighting to stop county and state governments from posting public records containing Social Security numbers on their Web sites is now preparing to do battle against an amendment to a Virginia law that bars individuals from disseminating any of those numbers, even if they obtain them legally from public records.

Far from viewing the bill that amended Virginia's Personal Information Protection Act as a cause for celebration, privacy advocate Betty "BJ" Ostergren claims that it violates her free-speech rights and will do nothing to stop county governments in the state from posting documents without first redacting Social Security numbers and other sensitive data. In fact, Ostergren said the measure seems to have been designed to curtail her campaign to publicize and end that practice.


According to Ostergren and other privacy advocates, county government Web sites in Virginia and elsewhere around the U.S. have become veritable treasure troves of sensitive data for identity thieves and fraudsters. Ostergren, who lives in Virginia's Hanover County, said the bill signed by Kaine will do little to prevent just about anyone worldwide from accessing the public records on county Web sites for a nominal fee. All the amended law does is prohibit people from spreading the information after it is made available to them, she contended.

Ostergren runs a Web site called The Virginia Watchdog, which she uses to highlight the privacy problems that she claims can result from the posting of unredacted tax lien records and other documents on government Web sites. In recent years, she has chronicled dozens of cases in which local governments have inadvertently exposed Social Security numbers and other personal data through their Web sites.

As part of her strategy to highlight the seriousness of the issue, Ostergren has routinely posted on her Web site the Social Security numbers of public figures that she accessed via government sites. The list includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, former Missouri senator Jean Carnahan and several of Virginia's county clerks. Ostergren claims that she posted the numbers to demonstrate the ease with which such information could be obtained and to pressure county officials into taking action.


Ostergren said that in challenging the amendment, her ultimate goal remains convincing the Virginia legislature to stop county clerks from openly posting sensitive personal data. Currently, she claimed, 84 of the 121 county governments in Virginia post unredacted public documents — such as land records, state and federal tax liens, divorce decrees and name change records — on their Web sites.


In a prepared statement issued last week before the governor signed the bill, Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU's Virginia chapter, said the organization is a "staunch supporter" of laws that would prevent the government from posting Social Security numbers on publicly accessible sites. "But the government can't put the numbers online and then turn around and prevent the public from using those numbers," Willis said. "This is a grossly misplaced bill that attempts to mask the fact that Virginia's lawmakers have failed to prevent Social Security numbers from being placed online in the first place."

I don't know what's the most disturbing aspect of this story:

  • that social security numbers are so easy to find by would be identity thieves;
  • that this proposed law is so utterly useless in dealing with the stated problem;
  • that the Virginia legislature and Governor appear to be targeting Ms. Ostergren because of her efforts to draw attention to these privacy concerns;
  • or that this bill might have something to do with the fact she's posting Social Security numbers of powerful people like Jeb Bush and Colin Powell...versus say, doing something to stop identity thieves from stealing from everyday people?!
Click here to read the article in its entirety.

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