A Matter Of Public Record

For Betty Ostergren, the solution to protecting privacy is simple: Keep public records public, but don't put them online.
For Betty Ostergren, the solution to protecting privacy is simple: Keep public records public, but don't put them online. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Betty (but call her BJ) Ostergren, a feisty 56-year-old from just north of Richmond, is driven to make important people angry. She puts their Social Security numbers on her Web site, or links to where they can be found.

It's not that she wants CIA Director Porter J. Goss, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, or Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to be victims of identity theft, as were millions of Americans in the past year. Ostergren is on a crusade to scare and shame public officials into doing something about how easy it is to get sensitive personal data.

Data brokers such as ChoicePoint Inc. and LexisNexis Group have been attractive targets for identity thieves because they are giant buyers and sellers of personal data on millions of people.

But as federal and state lawmakers try to keep sensitive information from falling into criminal hands, they face a difficult dilemma: The information typically originates from records gathered and stored by public agencies, available for anyone to see in courthouses and government buildings around the country.

What's more, local governments have in recent years rushed to put these records online.

A wealth of documents -- including marriage and divorce records, property deeds, and military discharge papers -- containing Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other sensitive information is accessible from any computer anywhere. Many of the online records are images of original documents, which also display people's signatures.

Ostergren began organizing citizens and complaining to officials on the issue in 2002, when a title examiner called to warn her that her county was about to put a slew of documents online, including pages with her signature.

A longtime activist in local politics, Ostergren swung into action, bringing enough pressure on Hanover County officials that they halted their plans. Then she broadened her attack, targeting other counties in Virginia and elsewhere.

Today, she is eager to guide reporters to her favorite example: the Social Security number of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), which is viewable via the Internet on a tax lien filed against him in 1980.

"Don't you think if I can get Tom DeLay's Social Security number . . . that some guy in an Internet cafe in Pakistan can, too?" she asks, her voice rising with indignation. "It's just ridiculous what we're doing in this country."

The drumbeat of identity-theft revelations is the stuff of nightmares for cash-strapped county recorders, court clerks and other custodians of public records, even without people like Ostergren hounding them. They could start masking out sensitive data tomorrow for new documents they receive, but billions of records already are online.

"It's a national issue and it's hitting everybody," said Kathi L. Guay, the register of deeds in Merrimack County, N.H., who participates on a joint task force of public agencies and companies addressing the issue.

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