Online Numbers Game

U.S. counties post government records with individual Social Security numbers online
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, Congress' investigative arm.

"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, wrote in a 65-page report sent to Rep. Clay Shaw, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Social Security. GAO recommends that a 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.

Records with Social Security numbers can be retrieved online in up to 28% of U.S. counties, GAO estimates, and between 38% and 48% of the U.S. population lives in those 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."

GAO estimates that offices in up to 27% of counties have begun to redact Social Security numbers on copies of records provided to the public, and offices in up to 26% of counties have begun restricting access to records containing Social Security numbers. GAO says some offices also have begun using partial Social Security numbers in public records.

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