- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2003

RICHMOND Legislation intended to protect personal information contained in court documents obtained online would, if passed, do little to keep sensitive information out of the wrong hands, supporters and opponents agree.
At issue is the information that court clerks may post on the Internet. Under Virginia law, they are required to post all public documents online if they expect to collect their portion of the technology trust fund.
Sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, may be included in these documents, which privacy advocates fear could get into the wrong hands if it is readily available.
The bill, sponsored by Delegate Samuel A. Nixon Jr., Richmond Republican, as amended would bar the posting of any signatures, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, a mother's maiden name or financial account numbers as of Jan. 1, 2004.
It contains a sunset clause for July 1, 2005, which would give lawmakers a chance to study it in action and come up with a stronger alternative that all sides agree is necessary.
Even Mr. Nixon had reservations about its effectiveness because of the amendments and changes made to his original proposal.
"They spent 2 hours on [the bill Tuesday], and they gutted a lot. I am not sure what is left," Mr. Nixon said.
Fairfax County Clerk of Court John T. Frey called it a "feel-good bill."
"It really doesn't protect the public's privacy," he said.
Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, a Falls Church Democrat who on Tuesday cast the lone vote against the bill in the Senate General Laws Committee, agreed. "This bill is not going to protect your privacy," she said.
Sen. R. Edward Houck, chairman of the General Laws science and technology subcommittee, which debated the bill Tuesday and Wednesday before sending it to the full committee for consideration, said it represents "the best work that can be done at this time."
"I don't believe you are going to get a better bill to consider," said Mr. Houck, Spotsylvania County Democrat.
The legislation would not affect historical documents or records that could be used for genealogical research. For example, records dated before 1902 would not be included in the bill's prohibitions.
The bill goes before the full Senate early this week.
If passed, a conference committee would reconcile the differences between the Senate version and the House version, which was passed earlier this month, before the end of the session, on Feb. 22.
The bill would do nothing to curb access to the hundreds of records available online, which is a top concern of opponents. Furthermore, although it requires a notary public's signature to prove a person has a legitimate right to use remote access, they fear those who would want to do harm still could.
A dozen clerks around the state, including Mr. Frey, have had their documents online for several years. They charge subscription fees to monitor those who access the information.
Clerks argue that taking away this access would be detrimental to the way they conduct business and to the economy.
"We simply cannot go back to the old process," said David Mabie, Prince William County court clerk. "It would slow down the one part of the economy that is driving Virginia forward."
Real estate and credit transactions have been most affected by online posting because users have been able to instantly acquire signatures, credit records and other information, instead of waiting days or weeks.

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