- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

Virginia lawmakers are looking into ways to curb public access to sensitive materials that some counties in the commonwealth have begun to post on the Internet, specifically Social Security numbers, signatures, dates of birth and maiden names.
"We need to make a determination of what is and is not public information and take a comprehensive look at the Code [of Virginia] and what it says we can do," said Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites, Fairfax Republican and chairman of the Joint Committee on Electronic Court Records.
The committee, composed of lawmakers, clerks of courts, and other government officials, met Wednesday in Richmond to discuss the display of sensitive information like Social Security numbers on the Web sites of various counties across the state on land records and marriage licenses.
"I am concerned that we are taking this information and basically broadcasting it to three billion Internet users," said state Sen. Leslie Byrne, Fairfax Democrat, also a member of the joint committee. "Social Security numbers are a tremendous threat to identity theft."
King George, Wise and Arlington counties post sensitive information on their Web sites, although both Wise and Arlington charge monthly or yearly subscription fees.
Not all Virginia counties and jurisdictions have their records online, but many are reviewing their plans on how best to post the information on the Internet. The sensitive information is available on the hard copies of the land records and marriage licenses and would be accessible to anyone visiting the courthouses in person.
In King George Countyfl sensitive information is available on the county Web site (www.king-george.va.us).
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 elected county clerk.
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 "0 results found" when inadequate information was submitted, and Vic Mason, clerk of the King George County Court, 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.
Some activists and legislators have raised concern that this information, which could be accessed from a home computer from anywhere, could put the privacy of individuals in jeopardy if the information got into the wrong hands.
"It's important that the public records remain public, but we need to ensure that this information does not get passed virtually throughout the whole world," said Mrs. Byrne.
The city of Norfolk does not have its records online. Currently, officials there are reviewing what will be posted when their pilot technology program begins sometime in the future.
Albert Teich Jr., Norfolk's elected clerk of the court and a member of the joint committee, suggested making sensitive information completely private as part of a closed attachment to the open record.
"The attachment would be sealed, but the rest of the record would remain open. Only family members and attorneys would have access to it," Mr. Teich said. In addition to land records and marriage licenses, Mr. Teich would also like to see this attachment on divorce records and military-discharge forms.
Mr. Teich said there are more than 100 laws in Virginia regulating when and where a Social Security number can be used. He said he has reviewed 62 of them so far, and is hoping to finish before the legislative session begins in Richmond in January so that the committee can recommend changes to the current law.
Mrs. Devolites said she is hopeful that when the General Assembly reconvenes next year legislation can be fashioned to help prevent the sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands.
"I think Al Teich's ideas are very doable," she said.
But J. Jack Kennedy, clerk of the court for Wise County, warns that legislators and the public should not hurry to change a system that, he says, has worked well in his rural Virginia county for several years.
"Any public door cannot be left half-open," Mr. Kennedy said. Wise County charges $39 a month or $350 annually for access to the information.
"We are very proud of what we have been doing here and we have not had any terrorist activity or identity theft," he said.
Mrs. Byrne, however, questioned how Mr. Kennedy, or anyone else could be so sure the information is secure.
"How would he know [if someone broke in]?" she said. "I doubt very seriously that the clerk of the court for Wise County can offer more security than Microsoft, whose passwords have had to be changed."


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