- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

Officials for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are telling state and local officials to stop posting Social Security numbers on the Internet.
"We will continue to push the General Assembly to take some action, but if all else fails, we will take a close look at whether the issue can be litigated," Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, said yesterday.
The ACLU is targeting King George County, where Clerk of the Court Vic Mason has posted residents' Social Security numbers and signatures on the county Web site (www.king-george.va.us). The sensitive information appears under the land records section and was posted to update all of the county's files electronically.
The Washington Times last month reported that King George officials were posting the information on the Internet. Virginia lawmakers said they will consider legislation to stop the practice.
"Exposing Social Security numbers to the public through the Internet drastically increases the chances of identity theft that could have ruinous results for the owner of the number. At the same time, the posting of the numbers serves no governmental or public purpose," Mr. Willis told Mr. Mason in a letter Tuesday.
Mr. Mason said he appreciates the concern the ACLU and others have expressed about the Social Security numbers, but said he has limited resources and cannot post the files without Social Security numbers unless additional funding is provided.
"I don't know how we are supposed to remove the Social Security numbers. We have a small staff and with the budget cuts we are now facing, there is just no way we can take [the numbers] off," he said. "If the ACLU wants to get me a grant, I would be happy to hire someone to remove the numbers."
A 1998 state law mandates that clerks charge a $3 technology fee for updating databases when records are filed. The decision to post information online is left to each county's clerk of the court.
Individual jurisdictions receive $2 back from the state, but clerks must make the information available by remote access to receive the money, Mr. Mason said.
"That's what most people don't understand. I am doing what the state tells me to do," Mr. Mason said. "If we do what the state tells us to do, we get the short end of the stick, and if we don't do it, we still get the short end of the stick."
Lawmakers are set to meet in Richmond this month to start drafting legislation on the issue that could be presented to the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.
The hope, they say, is to create a solution that will appease clerks and private residents concerned about an invasion of privacy.
The signatures and Social Security numbers are not easily accessible on the Web site unless a person has some idea of what he is looking for. The King George County Web site search engine responds with "0 results found" when inadequate information is submitted.
Still, a computer user could find personal information on the site through trial and error, and hackers would be unlikely to have trouble accessing the information.
Jack Kennedy, clerk of the court for Wise County in Southwestern Virginia, which allows subscribers access to the sensitive information, said the ACLU and other critics are going after the wrong people.
The clerks are only posting what the banking groups give them when they process the land documents.
"I would not honor any request by the ACLU to remove these records," he said. "I don't have any horror stories of what could be. I only know what reality is. It should not be the clerks' responsibility to redact public records. That should be up to the banking community, and that is something the state legislature can control."

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