- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

Officials in King George County, Va., are posting county records online, making personal information such as Social Security numbers and signatures available to anyone with access to the Internet.

"The idea behind it was to bring Virginia into the 21st century," says Vic Mason, clerk of the court in King George County, whose county seat is King George, east of Fredericksburg.

But the result, say worried skeptics, will be to make county residents easy prey to criminals.

"I'm all for open government," says Betty J. Ostergren, a resident of Hanover County who has begun a campaign against the online availability of records in King George County. "Endangering my identity, my credit security, my financial security and the peace of my life" is wrong.

The signatures and Social Security numbers appear on land records that have been put on the county Web site (www.king-george.va.us) as part of the jurisdiction's efforts to bring all of its files up to date electronically.

A 1998 Virginia law mandates that clerks charge a $3 technology fee for the purposes of updating their databases when records are filed, but whether the information is put online is up to the clerk of the court.

The signatures and Social Security numbers are not easily accessible unless a person has some idea of what he is looking for. The King George County Web site search engine responded with a "0 results found" when inadequate information was submitted, and Mr. Mason had to walk a reporter through the process to expedite the search.

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.

Mr. Mason, whose photograph is not posted on the Web site, says he has not heard many complaints from residents about the online availability of personal information. If a resident does file a complaint, sensitive data are removed from the site.

"Personally, I don't see a problem with the signatures because they are just about everywhere you go, but I do understand the problem with the Social Security numbers," he says.

Documents that are scanned and uploaded online would in future exclude any sensitive information, although it will remain in records already posted unless residents request its removal.

"We just do not have the staff to go through all the files and update unless a complaint is filed," Mr. Mason says.

Not all counties display such information online, and some limit access to subscribers. "What actually goes on the Web site is up to the purview of the individual clerk," says Bruce Haynes, executive secretary of the Virginia State Compensation Board, which provides the state's share of funding for locally elected constitutional officers, including clerks of court.

Joy Ionni, deputy clerk of the court for Arlington County, says only those who needed the information have access to it, and in these cases, a subscription fee is charged. There is no public access to this information on Arlington County's Web site.

"Banks, title companies and law offices people who use this information in their work can subscribe," she says, for $50 a month.

The city of Alexandria is in the process of reviewing its files, but it does not have plans to provide access to Social Security numbers.

"Social Security [numbers] are not something we are going to be putting on the Web," says Gloria Bannister, the city's deputy clerk of the court.

Marriage license records also contain privileged information, including dates of birth and maiden names of mothers, which creditors often use to confirm identity. All this information is a matter of public record and can be viewed if an individual visits the courthouse.

"No one other than a mortgage company would really have a need for this information," he says.

Mrs. Ostergren has fought the online availability of sensitive data by calling King George County residents and letting them know about it.

She wants to dissuade Hanover County which also is in the central part of the state and other jurisdictions from putting personal information online. A self-described proponent of open government, Mrs. Ostergren fears personal information might go into the wrong hands.

J. Jack Kennedy, clerk of the court for Wise County, says that worry is a waste of time.

"I do not live in a world of fear," Mr. Kennedy says. "To those who would change our system, well, they are attacking the very tenets of America and her freedoms."

Wise County began putting files online in the late 1990s. Like Arlington County, it charges a subscription fee, which, Mr. Kennedy says, makes the system more secure because he can monitor who is looking at which documents.

"You think we could do that if we just had them in the courthouse? There is no way my staff could monitor what you are looking at the way they can now," he says.

Mr. Kennedy says there have been no cases of identity theft since the records went online.

However, concern about the information's availability has come to the attention of the General Assembly, which has a joint subcommittee reviewing the law to see what changes if any need to be made.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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