Aug 29, 2008, 07:30AM

Bureaucracy's Own Medicine

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the Internet knows that vast amounts of personal information is available online, and too often the organizations responsible for that information remain faceless. But in Virginia one woman is using the power of the web to fight for privacy. For several years the state of Virginia has released social security numbers online through real estate records without asking permission. Betty Ortergren fought back by posting the SSNs of high ranking state officials on her website, and now they're moving to close the privacy gap.

A federal judge has ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of Virginia privacy activist Betty Ostergren to publish the Social Security numbers of public officials on her website. She posted the numbers to protest the Virginia government's policy of posting public real estate records online that included people's Social Security numbers. The decision—and the associated publicity for Ostergren's website—may prompt Virginia politicians to hurry up and fix their own website.

For several years, Virginia has been making the real estate records available for a nominal fee from a commonwealth website. Ostergren, wanting to give public officials a taste of their own medicine, began reproducing the records of legislators and court clerks—Social Security numbers and all—on her website.


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