Personal Info on Public Officials Posted on Web

A Richmond, Virginia woman is posting the Social Security Number and other sensitive information on some major public officials on her website, in order to spur action on the issue of identity theft.

A Matter Of Public Record (WaPo, E1)

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.

I applaud Ostergren’s enthusiasm on this issue–my girlfriend’s identity has been stolen twice and there seems little interest in doing much about it on the part of creditors–but agree with Cori Dauber that this methodology is extreme. What’s more, it’s rather silly. What exactly are Goss and Powell supposed to do about identity theft? Powell is no longer in public office and Goss is out of the legislature.

Vox Day disagrees, arguing that it’s perfectly legal and that, “If they’re going to cram it down the throats of the American people, the American people should make sure that they get to experience the full consequences of their evil, idiotic actions.” The problem is that having these documents public has always been the norm, for good reasons, and thus do not result from the actions of the people involved. The reason identity theft is suddenly a problem is because modern technology has made gleaning this information easier at the same time that our social and economic systems have made most of our actions anonymous. We need to change the system to reflect the new realities, to be sure, but it’s hardly the fault of Colin Powell or Porter Goss that we haven’t. Perhaps Jeb Bush could do something in Florida, although nothing that would impact someone living in Richmond.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. FMF says:

    Why is it that Congress can spend countless hours and resources on steroids in professional sports but can’t get some solid legislation passed on identity theft?????

    Does this seem to be a bit of mis-placed priority to anyone else?

    It’s getting pretty scary out there. See this post from yesterday:

  2. Jeff says:

    Her point that thieves won’t go to a hard copy to get the info is invalid too.

    The hard copies (I think – I could be wrong, it could have been electronic versions) of the Congressional Record were used to steal the identities of several flag grade (and possibly some more junior) officers by pulling their social security numbers off their info when their promotions were confirmed. The SSN is no longer included in the Record because of this.

    A friend’s dad was one of the victims and it took him a while to get it straightened out.

  3. Just Me says:

    I think more can be done, but I don’t think there is anyway to stop identity theft. The government can raise the bar, but theives, being theives will quickly find the backdoor.

    The problem is right now, we haven’t even attempted to keep up with the technology and the theives don’t even have to go to the back door, because we have left the front door wide open.

  4. Cornfields says:

    Seems to me that the problem is not so much in the “theft,” than in the ease of use. Rather than trying to put SS numbers back in the box, we need to make them less useful to thieves. Generally the free spread of information is for the best… on the other hand it needs to be harder to use this information to take out credit cards, loans etc. Of course there is a trade off, here. But if it would reduce the number of credit card come ons in my mailbox, I am all for it!