- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — All she wanted to do was show people that a few clicks of the mouse and a few bucks could get them access to millions of Social Security numbers.

But doing so — and then posting the nine-digit numbers of those in high places on her Web site — didn’t make Betty “BJ” Ostergren any friends in the Virginia General Assembly, or with officials in other states.

Now Virginia’s legislature has struck back, passing a law that prohibits individuals from disseminating Social Security numbers legally obtained from government Web sites. Those who violate it could face a $2,500 civil penalty.

The bill sailed through the legislature without a single opposing vote, and Gov. Tim Kaine signed it Tuesday. It takes effect July 1.

“Instead of directing their venom at me, they should have directed their venom at these state agencies that are throwing these Social Security numbers out there and who are allowing these Social Security numbers to not be protected,” Miss Ostergren said.

Currently, individuals are prohibited from disclosing Social Security numbers obtained from private sources, but millions of public records are available online in Virginia containing individuals’ Social Security numbers and other private information.

They are accessible by paying a nominal fee — usually about $25.

Miss Ostergren and the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union say they are poised to challenge the law in court.

“If government puts a document in a public place and makes it accessible to the public, it cannot then limit what the public does with it,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU. “This is a fundamental aspect of free speech.”

The General Assembly in 2002 ordered localities to place all land records online by this July, but it didn’t require that Social Security numbers be redacted. Land records include not only deeds and mortgages but also things like divorce decrees, powers of attorney, name changes and even documents related to financing a swimming pool or windows for a home.

In 2007, legislators passed a law that required the numbers be blacked out, but only if the estimated $8 million it would take to do it was appropriated. It wasn’t.

“The real issue here is the failure of the General Assembly to protect these records from the get-go,” Mr. Willis said. “These records should never have gone online until the resources were put in place to redact them of their Social Security numbers.”

Miss Ostergren’s fight began in the late 1980s when a burglar used her husband’s Social Security number. They didn’t find out until the state withheld their tax return to pay the fine.

She said her tactics have worked in other states, such as Vermont, New York, New Mexico, California, Ohio and Florida, where she has fought to get personal information removed from online records.

She’s accessed the Social Security numbers of the likes of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and celebrities Kelly Ripa, Joe Namath and Troy Aikman. Even Donald Trump’s Social Security number was online.

“I’m not going after the little guy, I’m going after people of prominence that could have some power to do something about this,” Miss Ostergren said.

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