A recent court decision will allow one citizen to post public records containing the Social Security numbers of government officials on her website, raising questions about identity theft risks.
Betty Ostergren, a long-time privacy activist, has been lobbying to have personal information removed from state websites, but has yet to achieve any real success. In the past, she has highlighted the parallels between identity theft and the federal and state government's relaxed attitude about displaying personal information online - including tax liens and deeds, according to the Washington Post.
To make the situation more personal for lawmakers, Ostergren recently created her own website, the Virginia Watchdog, on which she posted many public records of high-ranking government officials. The documents included the same type of sensitive information she has been lobbying to have removed from the internet - including the officials' Social Security numbers. A federal appellate court in Virginia ruled that a current law prohibiting citizens from publishing Social Security numbers violates Ostergren's constitutionally-protected right to free speech.
Citing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit opinion, the Post reports Judge Allyson Duncan as saying "the unredacted SSNs on Virginia land records that Ostergren has posted online are integral to her message. Indeed, they are her message. Displaying them proves Virginia's failure to safeguard private information and powerfully demonstrates why Virginia citizens should be concerned."
Online safety has become more of an issue lately as Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the large number of data breaches to hit banks, hospitals, insurance companies and social networking sites. A joint report released by Verizon and the Secret Service encouraged Americans to play a bigger role in safeguarding their information by providing only the required information that businesses and services need to open and maintain accounts. Americans should also ask any service providers - including lenders, doctors and retailers - what type of security measures they have in place to protect their data.
Many criminals now utilize social networking sites as well to access information than can be used to commit identity theft. Users should limit their publication of information such as address, phone number, workplace and date of birth on public websites. They may even take it a step further by using a nickname or pseudonym instead of their real name.