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11/9/2004
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Many Counties Put Social Security Numbers Online

The GAO says federal, state, and local officials should create a unified way of safeguarding Social Security numbers that are used in all government records.

Offices in about a quarter of U.S. counties post Social Security numbers on their Web sites, according to a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Relatively few federal and state offices post Social Security numbers online, according to the GAO.

"The continued visibility of SSNs in public records in virtually every corner of the country presents continued risk of widespread, albeit small-scale, identity theft," Barbara Bovbjerg, GAO director of education, workforce, and Income Security Issues, writes in a 65-page report sent to Rep. Clay Shaw, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Social Security.

The primary way people gain access to local government public records containing Social Security numbers is by visiting an office in person to view paper copies or request a copy through the mail, the GAO says.

Yet, in as many as 68% of county offices, visitors can examine records containing Social Security numbers using an onsite computer terminal. The Internet remains the least-common method of access, though records with Social Security numbers can be retrieved online in 15% to 28% of U.S. counties. The GAO estimates that between 38% and 48% of the U.S. population lives in these counties.

This situation, Bovbjerg says, "creates a broad vulnerability that, together with the lack of uniform protections, makes it difficult for any one individual to mitigate."

According to the GAO survey, courts and county records offices are the primary source for online access to documents containing Social Security numbers. While GAO estimates that offices in only 2% to 8% of counties plan to introduce Internet access to records containing Social Security numbers, this could have consequences for the 13% to 25% of Americans who live in those counties.

In the past two years, the majority of local-government offices have not made changes to the way they display or share Social Security numbers in government records. However, the GAO estimates that offices in 13% to 27% of counties have begun to redact Social Security numbers on copies of records provided to the public and offices in 12% to 26% of counties have begun restricting access to records containing Social Security numbers. Some offices also have begun using partial Social Security numbers in public records, the GAO says.

As part of its recommendation, the GAO suggests that a representative group of federal, state, and local officials develop a unified approach to safeguarding Social Security numbers used in all levels of government, particularly those displayed in public records.

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