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Risk

3/23/2007
07:14 PM
Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe
Commentary
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Could This Be The 'Longest-Running Internet Breach Ever'?

That old saw, "We're from the government, and we're here to help you," could stand some updating in this digital life. How about this one: "We're from the government, and we're here to give your identity away -- no questions asked."

That old saw, "We're from the government, and we're here to help you," could stand some updating in this digital life. How about this one: "We're from the government, and we're here to give your identity away -- no questions asked."That was pretty close to how it was in California over the last three years, and who knows right now on how many local, state, county, and federal Web sites nationwide?

State Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, has accused the state of "selling an identity theft starter kit on the Internet" after he discovered the gaping security hole on the California secretary of state's Web site. The site had been posting uniform commercial code filings, which are voluntarily provided by banks, with "enough information to open a credit card in someone else's name." He said the state was selling Social Security numbers for $6 each, an Internet connection, and a credit card. As a test, Jones bought 20 public records, 14 of which he said contained enough information to enable him to open credit cards in someone else's name, had he wanted to.

The filings are only supposed to be available to financial institutions and contain information about collateral used for loans, mostly from businesses, but some personal loans as well. The state has to accept the filings, but good lord, it doesn't have to make the information so easy to access online.

The state secretary of state, Debra Bowen, has said the 2 million files, which were available for at least three years, will be taken down until her office can figure out a way to hide all but the last four numbers of each person's Social Security number. She also says there have been no complaints of identity theft filed. But so what? As an ABC News report on the story notes, most people never find out where their data was stolen from. So that's cold comfort. As far as Jones is concerned, this qualifies as "potentially the longest-running government Internet breach in California's history," according to DailyBreeze.com.

But none of this really addresses why such personal data was widely accessible in the first place, and what will be done afterward to keep out prying eyes. In fact, along with the state of Indiana, officials might consider now a good time to review what information is being posted online. What information should be public? What changes should be made to documents so that they can go from being electronically filed to being posted safely on the Internet? What do citizens think about state DMVs and census offices selling their personal data? Shouldn't the government just agree now that no Social Security number should ever be posted on any public document? Any insurer or bank or credit analyst who needs your SS number probably already has it (and probably because you gave provided it yourself). Why should anyone else need it legitimately? Someone else's need to spam millions with credit or insurance offers isn't your problem.

Tell us what you think the government should be posting online -- or at least what it should be doing to make sure it isn't giving out "ID Theft Starter Kits" using your identity for pennies, and in the process, often breaking its own laws.

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