Thursday, July 29, 2010

Court ok's privacy advocate publishing social security numbers on line

At Wired's Threatlevel blog David Kravets reports that BJ Ostergren has won her fight with the Virginia Attorney General, at least for now. Ostergren posted the Social Security numbers of elected officials on her site, The Virginia Watchdog. Ordinarily I would be against publishing privacy information, but there was a purpose - getting officials to begin redacting personal information from public records online. The information she posted was obtained from online public records, no laws were broken obtaining it. Posting it, on the other hand, ran afoul of a Virginia law prohibiting publishing private information.

An appeals court ruled in favor of Ostergren, saying that her first amendment rights and the purpose of her site outweighed the state law:

“We find particularly significant just how Ostergren communicates SSNs. She does not simply list them beside people’s names but rather provides copies of entire documents maintained by government officials,” the court said Monday. “Given her criticism about how public records are managed, (.pdf) we cannot see how drawing attention to the problem by displaying those very documents could be considered unprotected speech.”

Sometimes the subtle approach works, other times a brick to the head is required. Virginia is now in the process of redacting millions of online records.