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Collect Them All: Politicians' Social Security Numbers

Let's see, here's the Social Security number of Dick Saslaw, the Virginia Senate's majority leader, and here's the number for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and here are a whole slew of Virginia legislators' supposedly private identification numbers. Betty "BJ" Ostergren has them all collected on her web site, not to abet identity theft, but to make a political point:

If Ostergren, an activist from outside Richmond can collect dozens of public figures' Social Security numbers entirely from public records, what does that say about the role public records play in helping identity thieves rip off the rest of us?

When Ostergren posted links to property and court records that show the public officials' Social Security numbers, the state of Virginia reacted by moving to require courts to redact those numbers from public records by 2010. That's a lovely goal, but a massive and unwieldy project, and court clerks rightly argue that they lack the resources to comb through every sheet of paper in their vast warehouses and web sites.

But the state wasn't finished. It also threatened to prosecute Ostergren for pointing web users toward those records that spell out the officials' SSNs. And it passed a law that makes it illegal to disseminate Social Security numbers, even if they are obtained from public records, even if it is to make a political point, as in Ostregren's case.

Undeterred, Ostergren took the state to court, arguing that the new law is unconstitutional.

In federal court in Richmond Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Payne rejected Virginia's attempt to punish Ostergren, ruling that the Constitution protects her right to make public use of public records. Although the judge said he will return at a later date with a more detailed ruling, he made it clear for now that once Virginia made those Social Security numbers part of the public record, Ostergren and any other citizen is free to do with them as she wishes.

"It is difficult to imagine a more archetypal instance of the press informing the public of government operations through government records than Ostergren's posting of public records to demonstrate the lack of care being taken by the government to protect the private information of individuals," Payne wrote.

The issues here aren't quite as simple as Ostergren and other privacy advocates make them out to be, and that's why Judge Payne has called the parties back into the courtroom to argue whether the state law prohibiting publication of the numbers should be overturned. Ostergren is right that she ought not be punished for publishing public records. And the state attorney general's argument that Social Security numbers are not constitutionally protected speech is plain silly.

But Judge Payne remains torn. At a hearing earlier this month, he granted that "Shock value has long had its place in political speech." But he also said that it's "counterintuitive to common sense and constitutional law" for Ostergren to post the numbers just to make a political point.

I admire Ostergren's guts and I like her in-your-face tactics. There's nothing like having your Social Security number posted online to force politicians to pay some attention to a tough issue.

But unfortunately, Ostergren sees the solution to the problem in restricting or reducing the presence of public records online. She wants to blame the medium just because it makes finding information faster and easier.

In fact, there is little evidence that identity thieves rely on public records for the info they use in their crimes. Face it, Social Security numbers are everywhere--in payroll records, in credit reports, in the idiotic hoops many corporations require consumers to jump through before we can gain permission to speak to a human being on the telephone.

The problem is not public records, the problem is the massive and lazy overreliance on Social Security numbers as a routine form of identification by businesses, government, schools and just about every institution in society. Why focus on a bunch of old real estate transaction records when most of us quite regularly and routinely dispense our Social Security numbers to almost any stranger who asks for it?

At the ballpark tables where credit card companies give away t-shirts in exchange for your personal data, on the phone with the cable company or the power company, at the store where you're offered an extra 10 percent off if you fill out an application, we willy-nilly hand over our purportedly closely-held ID numbers to people who might go directly from that job to their identity theft operation at home.

The way to attack the problem is to create alternative means of checking identification--a process that should eventually be solved on the very same Internet that makes public records so easy to browse. To date, the cost of identity theft has not risen high enough to force the kind of private entrepreneurship or public policy initiatives that would solve the problem. As with credit card abuse, the businesses that lose money are happy enough, for now, simply to spread the cost of the crimes among all their customers rather than taking a far more aggressive stance against the crimes in the first place.

But the kerfluffle over public records in Virginia is an important warning signal: If the private and public sectors don't come together to create effective alternatives to Social Security numbers as the key to identification, then it will be ridiculously easy for those who want to hide public records to make that happen, riding on the fears of those who worry about the very real dangers of identity theft.

By Marc Fisher |  August 25, 2008; 8:54 AM ET
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I would think some enterprizing business person would set kiosks in public places to do retinal scans that could be put on memory sticks that could then hold whatever info the owner wants. I would pay a reasonable price for a service that would put all my (encrypted) medical and financial records on an 8 gig stick protected by my retinal scan and a password. Simple, carry it in my wallet like a credit card and maybe even have an unencrypted section for emergency medical info the EMTs might need if I were unconcious.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | August 25, 2008 10:10 AM

I would welcome more inspections, scans, pat downs of my body. It is hard to ask someone.

Posted by: Karl | August 25, 2008 11:30 AM

We need to do away with Social Security numbers. Use a system similar to the Visa temporary card number system (in which, for security, when you make a purchase Visa assigns a number specific to that transaction). SSA could assign one number only for your IRS 1040, another for your employer to use with you, etc.

If a private entity can't or won't go through the hoops to get an SSA-assigned number specific to their dealings with you, then it has the incentive to do its own better system.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw | August 25, 2008 12:22 PM


I'm amazed. I haven't given out my SS# for years. Anyone, other than the SS administration or IRS who asks for a SS# is just lazy and you are a fool for giving it to them. I've bought a house refinanced twice without having to provide a SS#. They may ask but they don't need,walk away go somewhere else where they don't treat customers like crap.

Posted by: JJ | August 25, 2008 1:17 PM

I remember that my dentist wanted that information, even when my two-year-olds were getting their first exam. I left the line blank. Unless there is a demonstrated need, I'm not giving out that number.

Unfortunately, identity theft is made so easy by the industry that makes credit so easy to get. Virginia making it that much easier and having the audacity to threaten the individual who exposes the insecurity takes the cake.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | August 25, 2008 1:37 PM

Most of the elected officials at the state and federal level have their own retirement system too.

It's kinda ironic that the state is protecting the SSN's of the elected officials who don't even pay into the SSN retirement system.

I always thought that the SSN could not be legally used as a means of identification. At least, that is what it says on the card ...

Posted by: SoMD | August 25, 2008 2:25 PM

Yeah, we shouldn't publicize that stuff, except for concealed carry permit lists. Those lists should be handed out at libraries. THEY don't deserve privacy, especially the whiny battered women who think they can protect themselves.

Posted by: 23112 | August 25, 2008 4:05 PM

SoMD - that old system ended in 1984, but I guess the myth never dies. Nowadays it's a combination of social security, an equivalent to a 401k plan (TIPS), and a pension to which the employee makes contributions. I'm not saying these are lousy benefits, just that elected officials pay into social security just like you and me.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | August 26, 2008 9:56 AM

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