Texas state Web site leaks sensitive information

State and local governments are struggling to remove personal information online so it cannot be misused by criminals

Troy Aikman may not be happy about it, but the State of Texas has made his address and social security number available via the Internet.

Sensitive information on Aikman, formerly a star quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys, and thousands of others is available on the Texas Secretary of State's SOSDirect Web site, according to Steven Peisner, the president of fraud prevention vendor Sellitsafe, who has provided IDG News Service with a half-dozen examples of social security numbers he was able to obtain from the site.

As government pushes more and more documents online, Texas is one of many state and local governments across the U.S. that is now struggling to remove sensitive information so that it cannot be misused by criminals.

Peisner found social security numbers on tax liens and on loan agreement notifications filed with the state, called Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) financing statements.

Texas has been automatically removing sensitive information from all documents filed with SOSDirect since June 2005, and the state is now in the process of redacting this information from earlier filings, said Scott Haywood, a spokesman with the Office of the Texas Secretary of State. But residents whose social security numbers are posted on SOSDirect need to contact the Secretary of State's office directly in order to have them removed right away, he added.

That's not good enough for Peisner.

"It's pretty cheap to do that... to make someone send in a request," he said. "There are literally hundreds of thousands of documents where social security numbers [are exposed]."

He thought that Texas should follow the lead of states like California and Colorado, which shut down access to their UCC databases earlier this year when privacy advocates notified them that they could be misused by identity thieves.

Users must submit a credit card number in order to search the Texas database, but Peisner said that lax security makes that barrier meaningless to most hackers. He said he was able to get access to information using a fake name and without providing the three-digit security code listed on the back of most cards. He believes that criminals could obtain information from the site using phony credit card numbers.

Peisner said he spoke with staffers at the Texas Secretary of State's office of his concerns last week, but to no avail. "You would think if somebody called up and said that this Web site has a hole so big that you could drive the Spruce Goose through it, that they would take it down."

One privacy advocate agreed with Peisner.

A name and social security number is all that criminals need to set up a phony credit card application, said Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "They need to immediately take action and take that Web site offline and in some other way remove or redact [the information]," she said.

But according to Haywood, the Texas Secretary of State is required to make the documents available under state public information laws. "Obviously our office is committed to trying to protect personal information in accordance with the law," he said. "But we also have a responsibility to post public information that has been submitted to our office. So we're balancing those responsibilities."

Ironically, Texas has recently gone after pawn shops and check-cashing operations in the state for throwing out sensitive data in public dumpsters.

The state should take a good look at its own data retention practices, Peisner said. "It's extremely hypocritical. They're talking about information that might not have been properly destroyed or shredded that was in a garbage bag... when there are thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of citizens whose information is easily available on the Web, where you don't have to go into a garbage dump and get your hands dirty."

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