Va. activist can post officials' Social Security numbers on site, court rules

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010

Betty "B.J." Ostergren wanted to persuade Virginia to take sensitive personal data off state Web sites. To make her point, she created her own site and then posted public records that included the Social Security numbers of government officials.

This week, a federal appellate court in Virginia ruled that Ostergren can keep those records on her site, The Virginia Watchdog. The court found that a 2008 law that prohibits publishing Social Security numbers violates Ostergren's constitutional right to free speech.

Ostergren has made it her mission to argue that the government is too lax with personal data posted online, making residents vulnerable to identity theft. She's free to use deeds and tax liens from lawmakers and court clerks to send her message, the court said.

"The unredacted SSNs on Virginia land records that Ostergren has posted online are integral to her message. Indeed, they are her message," Judge Allyson K. Duncan wrote for the panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. "Displaying them proves Virginia's failure to safeguard private information and powerfully demonstrates why Virginia citizens should be concerned."

Ostergren, who lives in Hanover County, began her privacy campaign about eight years ago. Today, her site guides surfers to publicly available records that list Social Security numbers of officials, including former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Virginia Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax).

In the 1990s, many court clerks across Virginia began putting land records online, giving people access for a fee. Later the government began redacting Social Security numbers from those records, but not all have been removed.

Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, which represented Ostergren, said the case shows the challenge faced by governments in the digital age. Posting records online, he said, makes them much more accessible. But the government also has an obligation to protect sensitive personal data.

"Like a lot of these issues, it's a balance," Willis said.

The Virginia attorney general's office did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

According to court papers, Virginia officials unsuccessfully argued that Ostergren's posting of the documents isn't protected speech. The Social Security numbers posted on Ostergren's site, they contended, facilitate "identity theft and are no essential part of any exposition of ideas."

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