Generally, court filings are public records unless sealed from public access by a judge. Vast amounts of personal information contained in public records can be, and are, accessed by criminals in order to obtain personal information of individuals, which can be aggregated with other information, to perpetrate fraud and identity theft.
For this reason, most federal and state courts have adopted local rules over the years that prohibit the filing of sensitive personal information like full Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers in court records.
But litigators don’t always redact this information prior to filing documents in a court record, and it has been a recurring problem over the years. I still don’t understand why every form set of Interrogatories to plaintiffs include requesting a full Social Security number. Litigators may wish to review whether they really need such sensitive information and want the responsibility of having to protect that sensitive piece of information and the consequences of its loss or misuse.
In Oklahoma, one woman is fighting back. She is suing the State of Oklahoma and eight District Attorneys for wrongfully disclosing her birth date and full Social Security number in publicly available court documents.
The suit, filed last week, alleges that DA’s from 11 different counties in Oklahoma regularly file the dates of birth and full Social Security numbers of anyone involved in a civil or criminal dispute in the court system, and that the information is available on the state’s electronic Supreme Court Network.
In her case, she was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. During the process, the police department obtained her personal information through the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety electronic system. The information contained in the document from the Department of Public Safety was filed in the court proceeding and was available to the public through the electronic court system, and it included her full Social Security number.
According to the complaint, this practice has been taking place since 2012, and she is seeking to represent any potential class members whose birth dates and full Social Security numbers were included in the Oklahoma Supreme Court Network since February 1, 2012.
This case illustrates how important it is for state government employees to recognize the high risk data of citizens that they have access to and how important it is to safeguard it. Public officials are responsible to implement privacy and security measures, just as private industry is. In this case, if you follow the data, the plaintiff’s full Social Security number was accessed at a minimum by the Department of Public Safety, the police, the DAs office, and then allegedly the public when it was included in the electronic court system. On the surface, it is questionable whether the number was needed at all by any of these departments, so why was it accessed and disclosed over and over without someone catching it and questioning why it should be disclosed once again?
State governments may wish to review how they are handling citizens’ sensitive personal information, including limiting access to it not only in court records, but between departments and third parties as well. In the present environment, It is hard enough for us to protect our own information, but we need everyone to work together to protect our information like it is their own.
We expect this case is a wake up call to those involved in Oklahoma, but it should also be a wake up call to other state government employees and all litigators too.