Identity Theft

by Aimee Edmondson, NFOIC contributing writer

A lively discussion on privacy versus open access to government records highlighted divergent opinions on how to reduce the risk of identity theft. The debate took place at the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s 2008 Summit.

“It’s an epidemic,” said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal.

He says the use of social security numbers increases instances of fraud.

“It is a number we already know is an instrument of crime,” said Smith, the author of Privacy: How to Protect What’s Left of It and Ben Franklin’s Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity From Plymouth Rock to the Internet, a history of privacy in the United States.

Eric Elman disagrees. He says the social security number is important to fraud prevention.

“It’s the unique identifier,” said Elman, vice president and attorney for the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA), a trade group that represents more than 400 consumer data companies. These include credit reporting institutions, as well as those involved in mortgage reporting, check verification, fraud prevention, risk management and others.

“Businesses are getting smarter and are protecting their own internal data,” Elman said, pointing to studies that indicate identity theft is on the decline.

The Identity Theft panel was the last event of the summit and was moderated by Daniel J. Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy.

Metcalf began working in the Department of Justice in 1971. He also was a Justice Department trial attorney. For more than 25 years, he guided all federal agencies on the administration of FOIA and supervised the defense of more than 500 FOIA and Privacy Act lawsuits.

He illustrated how easy it is to find out information about people online. He told Elman he was able to find out where he was married, which national parks he visited and what his daughter’s name was, for example.

Elman said that’s okay.

“It’s not an entryway to open a bank account or get a mortgage in my name,” he quipped.

Ari Schwartz, vice president and COO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, promotes expanding access to government information via the Internet. He also leads the Anti-Spyware Coalition (ASC).

Schwartz has monitored the type of public data that is available both online and from other types of sources. For example, in the late 1990s, federal bankruptcy court began removing bank account numbers from cases that had been put online. Divorce records also seemed to be a treasure chest for identity thieves.

A widely reported Arizona case showed methamphetamine users were funding their habit by accessing public records online. They were able to steal identities using divorce records.

“We started to get more concerned after 2000,” Schwartz said. “There are basic steps people can take. Cut out the social security number and bank account number. I haven’t heard any journalists say that is a concern to take those records down.”

Schwartz said he frequently sees government abuses of the privacy exemption.

“Privacy is used all the time as an excuse, as a way to not give out information.”

He encourages government officials to keep as many public records online as possible. If not, the data will gathered by a third party and they’ll put the information up and charge for it.

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