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Databases Called Lax With Personal Information

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page E01

The Social Security numbers of millions of Americans, including Vice President Cheney and celebrity heiress Paris Hilton, are available to many subscribers of a widely used information database company, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) charged yesterday.

Schumer called one feature offered by Westlaw an "egregious" invitation to identity theft. The "People-Find" feature lets some Westlaw users type in any name and receive personal data about that individual, culled from public records, including addresses and Social Security numbers.


Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday showed examples of personal information obtained from Westlaw, an online database. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

_____From Slate_____
Has Your Identity Been Stolen? Here's what you do if you find out your identity might have been stolen.
_____Background_____
ChoicePoint Victims Have Work Ahead (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2005)
ID Theft Scam Hits D.C. Area Residents (The Washington Post, Feb 21, 2005)
ID Data Conned From Firm (The Washington Post, Feb 17, 2005)
In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data (The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2005)

Westlaw's subscribers include government and law-enforcement agencies, law firms, corporations and news-gathering organizations. Westlaw, a division of Thomson Corp., said Social Security information is restricted to government agencies and a small number of corporations that need it, such as insurance companies investigating fraud.

"Fewer than 10 non-government customers have access to this type of information," the company said in a written statement. "Furthermore, our terms of use restricting access go beyond federal law and current industry standards."

But Schumer said the information is too easily available to any level of employee, adding that his investigation was prompted by complaints from consumers. He said the company has ignored his requests to restrict access to only those individuals who demonstrate they need the information, such as law-enforcement officers.

Schumer's concerns add to a controversy over companies that buy and sell such data with little oversight to protect personal information.

Yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the panel would hold a hearing in response to the recent theft of Social Security numbers and other financial data of more than 100,000 people from ChoicePoint Inc., a Georgia-based database firm.

After setting up accounts with the company, identity thieves were able to gather information on at least 145,000 individuals.

"It's time to turn some sunshine on these developments so the public can understand how and why their personal information is being used," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) in requesting hearings.

In the House, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has directed his staff to investigate the storage and security practices of database companies.


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