Texas business & counties win: YOU LOSE

A Texas house bill that was signed into law last week puts the interests of businesses and the counties ahead of your personal privacy.

The hub-bub all started on Feb 23 when the Texas attorney general issued an opinion about Section 471 of Texas statute 552. Statute 552 is Texas' version of the Freedom of Information Act.  It dictates what and how official documents must be made available to the public.  Section 471 stated that Social Security Numbers (SSNs) are exempt from the law, and do not need to be disclosed.  Specifically, it said that "the social security number of a living person is excepted from the requirements of" statute 552, and that "a governmental body may redact the social security number of a living person from any information the governmental body discloses."

This section of 552 has been there since July 2005, and apparently it had been interpreted that this meant that they may take the SSN out, not that they needed to take the SSN out.  The opinion of the attorney general changed all that on Feb. 23.  He reviewed section 147, and concluded (based on some rather major research and pretty sound thinking) that the intent of that law was that SSNs are confidential and should be taken out of documents given to the public — and giving out a document with an SSN still in it was a criminal act.

Well the fesces hit the rotary oscillator right away.  County clerks afraid that they would be prosecuted by the AG under this new interpretation shut down the web interfaces to their archives.  People would have to come into the courthouse the way they did 10 years ago to get records.  Then things went really bad.

It turns out there's a whole series of revenue streams that come from this access.  Have you ever bought a house or car, only to be immediately bombarded in the mail by offers related to your purchase?  Where do you think they got this information from?  The public records of your transaction — that's where.

So a whole slew of businesses would have to physically go into the courthouse to get their records , and the counties would have to deal with these requests.  It wasn't (IMHO) the inconvenience to the businesses or the counties that was the problem — it was the MONEY.  It turns out it's much cheaper to buy records on-line (one example given in an article in Computerworld stated that one county sold 20 million records for $2,500.  Apparently the printed version would have cost about $20 million dollars.).

Soo….  Businesses wouldn't actually come in and get the info.  They would lose out on all that business they get from sending you mail and having you buy things (why do you buy things from these people?).  AND the counties would miss out on all that revenue they get from these businesses giving them money for the records.

Well, we can't have that, now can we?

So the Texas legislature immediately (5 days later) created HB 2061 (you can read it here), that repealed section 147 of Statue 552, and the governor signed it into law last week (Apr 2007).   The verbiage of the house bill is quite short.  The analysis is the interesting part.  It says:

While removal of social security numbers from public documents is an important privacy concern, state and county officials say it could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and take several years to comply with the law. Furthermore, the opinion could make the state's county clerks and some other county officials liable to arrest and jail if they are unable to immediately strip out the information. In response to the ruling, some county clerk offices have shut down public access to some records, while others have blocked access to online records.

The taxpayers are going to pay the cost anyway, because they said they're going to do it.  So it's not about that. The clerks solved the criminal problem in the short term by shutting down access.  So it's not about that.  And the average taxpayer couldn't care less if public access to deeds and documents with their SSNs is shutdown, because the average taxpayer never looks at those things.  If they do, they do it once or twice in a lifetime.  What it IS about (IMHO) is these businesses that make a living from accessing this information, and the loss of revenue for those businesses and for the associated fees paid to the the county offices that resulted in that shutdown.

So, businesses and the counties won:  YOU LOST.  That revenue and the businesses represented by lobbyists are more important to the state of Texas than your personal privacy.

It's really sad that the Freedom of Information Act, which was originally written to protect the citizenry against secret government records is being used and abused by these businesses to figure out yet another way to send unsolicited offers to you.  It's even more sad that the state of Texas is placing the interests of those businesses ahead of your personal privacy.

I'd tell you to move out of a state that obviously doesn't care about your personal privacy, but that would create another public record if you sold your house, so…  Just stay put.  Don't sell your house.  Don't buy/sell a car.  See if you can register your car in a neighboring state (if it's legal).

OK.  Here's some real advice: If you're aware of any public documents with your name/SSN on them, you can apparently request to have the SSN  "redacted" (which apparently a fancy word for edited) from the document.  But you have to know what documents to ask for (e.g. deeds, car registrations, tax bills, etc.)

Texas can't be the only state with this problem.  How are other states addressing it?  Are they just ignoring it?  Are there states where they've actually addressed this in a good way, or have most of them just not thought of the issue yet?



----- Signature and Disclaimer -----

Written by W. Curtis Preston (@wcpreston). For those of you unfamiliar with my work, I've specialized in backup & recovery since 1993. I've written the O'Reilly books on backup and have worked with a number of native and commercial tools. I am now Chief Technical Evangelist at Druva, the leading provider of cloud-based data protection and data management tools for endpoints, infrastructure, and cloud applications. These posts reflect my own opinion and are not necessarily the opinion of my employer.

One thought on “Texas business & counties win: YOU LOSE

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