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Published: 9/15/2006

Private data still public on Ohio office's Web site

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Nearly seven months after the issue made headlines, some Social Security numbers remain available on documents accessible through the Ohio Secretary of State's Internet Web site.

James Lee, spokesman for Secretary Ken Blackwell, said yesterday a software program removed 97 percent of private information that some lenders erroneously included on secured-loan documents that are routinely scanned and made available on the Internet.

He said employees are manually checking the database to remove the remaining 3 percent, but he was not sure when the job would be completed.

"It's not only that, but every day we receive several hundred new filings," he said. "We are applying both electronic and manual solutions to weed out those Social Security numbers. It's an ongoing process."

Although Mr. Lee said he is unaware of any identity theft resulting from access to these documents, Democrats have kept the issue alive not only against Mr. Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor, but also in the secretary of state's race between Republican Greg Hartmann and Democrat Jennifer Brunner.

"Identify theft is something that takes a lot of prior calculation and design," said Ms. Brunner, a former Franklin County Common Pleas judge. "When they get these [theft] rings going, they can have this information for several months before they use it. Just because we haven't seen an indictment yet doesn't mean it isn't going on."

Both candidates have proposed their own plans to protect private information.

Mr. Hartmann has called for a center to educate businesses and boards of elections on how to protection private information. Ms. Brunner said she would stop the practice of outsourcing the processing of records.

Mr. Hartmann speaks from personal experience as Hamilton County clerk of courts. Information taken from records on his Web site was cited in February indictments as one source used by an identity theft ring. His response was to restrict public access to the records.

"Public access is important, but as the keeper of public records in Hamilton County, it's my job to protect citizens' privacy," he said. "My Web site is still accessible to show what documents are there, but any document that may contain Social Security numbers is blocked. They will not go back up until I'm 100 percent sure they are clean of Social Security numbers."

In March, Mr. Blackwell's office settled a federal lawsuit in Cincinnati arguing that posting loan documents with Social Security numbers put Ohioans at risk.

Democrats called for Mr. Blackwell to cut off Internet access. But, unlike Mr. Hartmann, Mr. Blackwell has maintained that Ohio law requires the posting of the documents within three days of receipt and that many financial institutions rely on easy access to the 1.8 million documents.

Lenders are not supposed to include the Social Security numbers of Ohioans on the standardized form. Mr. Lee said the office has sent letters to offending lenders urging them to stop including the numbers.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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