Sunday, January 22nd, 2006By David Bloys / News for Public Officials
From Fort Bend County, Texas to Oneida County, New York, citizen reaction to local government publishing their records online is consistently unfavorable. In letters to local newspapers and letters to legislators, concerned citizens are calling for the removal of their sensitive information or removal of the offending official. In an increasing number of cases, outraged citizens are resorting to lawsuits.
When Oneida County Clerk Richard Allen (NY) made the move to post county records online, the response was unanimously negative. Allen said he made the decision to post the images online in response to demands from the public for easier access. Allen must have been listening to a public far outside his jurisdiction. In letters to the Utica Observer Dispatch, local citizens blasted the County Clerk.
In Allegheny County Pennsylvania, Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose requested the removal of the names and addresses of 100 local judges from the county's real estate Website. This came in the wake of the murder of a federal judge's family in Chicago. McCandless police Chief Gary Anderson, president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association followed with a request that the names of local officers also be removed.
In a case that may mark the first of many, Cynthia Lambert filed a federal lawsuit against Hamilton County Ohio after an identity theft ring confessed to gathering the information they needed on their victims from the county web site. Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann had previously removed 320,000 traffic tickets from the web site when local police notified him the web site established by his predecessor was facilitating the criminal activity. The Hamilton County web site gets 60 million hits annually. News for Public Officials visited the site in February 2005, over a month after the clerk removed the traffic tickets. In a matter of minutes and a few clicks of the mouse, we found social security and bank account numbers on several local residents.
In March of 2005 acting on behalf of a local nurse, the Alaska affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit seeking to bar state officials from publishing contact information for licensed nurses in its online searchable database, on its website, or on informational CDs.
At issue was the nurses name and home address. When the nurse first moved to Alaska she likely felt safe from the man who assaulted her in Massachusetts. When the state of Alaska published her home address to the Internet she immediately asked them to remove it. The requests continued for two years before the nurse resorted to a suit against the state.
In most states (including Texas), the law does not require local government to publish the records, it requires the clerks to make them available, not put them on the Internet. But inevitably when officials are caught putting sensitive information online, they blame the law or their own citizens.
Dianne Wilson (TX) for example, told News for Public Officials, "the public needs to be better educated". Wilson claims a doctorate from a school the U.S. General Accounting Office has labeled a diploma mill. Before acquiring her "PhD", Wilson filed records with the county that include social security numbers, medical and psychological profiles on her own family. Now, as "Dr." Dianne Wilson, Fort Bend County Clerk, she publishes the information over the Internet and sells it in bulk for commercial use.
Last May, KHOU reporter Shern-Min Chow asked Wilson why she was putting the records of her citizens online, she dodged the question by blaming Texas laws that prevent her from redacting information from government documents. Wilson is not required to put the documents on the Internet. She is only required to make them accessible at the courthouse.
Readers in Fort Bend County are reacting to articles and editorials concerning what Wilson calls her "aggressively progressive" approach to publishing the documents online. In Clyde King's column, "A sense of real danger, he points out the two main lies her apologists use in defending Wilson, "she has to do it," and everybody else is doing it". The first falsehood is bunk and the second shows a lack of information on Wilson's part. King points out possible legal issues that are likely to arise from Wilson's bad decision and says, "I understand several county residents are considering a class-action lawsuit over their personal information.
In a letter to the editor, George Isleib of Needville wrote, "Like all other subscribers who posses even the smallest degree of common sense, I was outraged after reading the articles concerning the release of public information by County Clerk Dianne Wilson. . . After Reading Ms. Wilson's personal information page on the county Web site, I'm convinced that she cares about little except expanding her questionable resume. Any concern she may express for the well-being of county citizens is about as real as her diploma mill PhD. . . This egregious action by our County Clerk should be a wakeup call for all of us, and I urge everyone to contact Ms. Wilson and other county leaders to demand changes, Then, hopefully after the next election, Ms. Wilson can shop her resume while looking for another job."
It seems very clear the people do not want their officials to publish their documents over the Internet. Officials who ignore the wishes of their constituents in favor of convenience for themselves and those outside the jurisdiction risk anger and lawsuits from the people who elected them.
Want to Stop This?
Class action suits have been filed from Alaska to Ohio against state and county governments who publish the community records online. If you feel your security may have been compromised, Click here for legal help and a free evaluation of your possible case An attorney will evaluate your case. You are under no obligation to accept legal representation from the lawyer that reviews your case. Lawyers are usually paid out of the proceeds of the settlement or verdict rendered.