Activist aims to scare officials into protecting personal data

OFCC raised the ire of news editors when we published the home address of Cleveland Plain Dealer editor and open records extremist Doug Clifton on our website. If BJ Ostergren had been running the show, Clifton’s social security number would likely have also been part of the equation…

May 24, 2005
Washington Post

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.

Ostergren began organizing citizens and complaining to officials on the issue in 2002, when a title examiner called to warn her that her county was about to put a slew of documents online, including pages with her signature.

A longtime activist in local politics, Ostergren swung into action, bringing enough pressure on Hanover County officials that they halted their plans. Then she broadened her attack, targeting other counties in Virginia and elsewhere.

Today, she is eager to guide reporters to her favorite example: the Social Security number of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), which is viewable via the Internet on a tax lien filed against him in 1980.

"Don't you think if I can get Tom DeLay's Social Security number . . . that some guy in an Internet cafe in Pakistan can, too?" she asks, her voice rising with indignation. "It's just ridiculous what we're doing in this country."

"Public records laws were designed to shed the light on government activities, not our personal information," said Kerry Smith, an attorney with Public Interest Research Groups, a coalition of state consumer advocacy organizations.

Click here to read the entire story from the Washington Post.

Click on the “Read More…” link below to read a letter sent to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in protest of the latest round of publishing of CHL-holders’ personal and private information on their website.

The following letter has been submitted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and copied to OFCC), but not yet published in the newspaper.

May 25, 2005
Letter to the Plain Dealer

Dear Editor,

I am writing to voice my dismay to the Plain Dealer on its continued harassment of CCW gun permit holders. Why does the Plain Dealer insist on placing the lives of permit holders in jeopardy by continuing in the electronic publishing of the names of the holders? CCW holders obey the law as it is written; yet the paper acts as if some law has been broken, and the holders are guilty of some crime.

Why does the paper not publish the names of convicted wife beaters, or the names of offenders who have received the yellow license plates because of alcohol related offenses, or neighborhood pedophiles, people who have broken the law and deserve the notoriety. Why does the paper feel that it has to “protect society” from innocent men and women who choose to follow the law to the letter and protect themselves legally? What good does it do to publish the names only because you can? Why do you insist to give the criminals, who do not follow the law and never will, an advance warning that a storeowner, or homeowner has a gun? If one storeowner is murdered in cold blood because of your recklessness, their blood will be on your hands.

Thomas Kemmett

Related Story:

Public records snafu leads to trouble for Carroll police chief

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