B.J. Ostergren is a proud Virginian. She’s known as “The Virginia Watchdog,” but I like to call her “The Pit Bull of Personal Privacy.” She is relentless in her efforts to protect citizens’ privacy, and her primary concern is the posting of personal information online. To make this point, she finds politicians’ personal information, usually Social Security numbers, on their own states’ websites, and republishes that information online.
Publicly appointed government employees known as Clerks of Courts, County Clerks, or Registrars are responsible for handling and managing public records, including birth, death, marriage, court, property, and business filings for municipalities. Every state, city, and town has its own set of regulations determining how data is collected and made available to the public.
The Privacy Act of 1974 is a federal law that establishes a code of fair information practices governing the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.
Over the years, many have interpreted this law to allow public information, including Social Security numbers, to be posted online. I’ve seen Social Security numbers for Jeb Bush, Colin Powell, former CIA Director Porter Goss, Troy Aiken, and Donald Trump, all published on the Internet.
Ostergren so embarrassed the Virginia lawmakers that they passed a law known by some as the “anti-B.J. law,” prohibiting her from doing what public officials have been doing for years.
United States District Court Judge Robert E. Payne signed an order overturning the anti-B.J. law, ruling that privacy advocate B.J. Ostergren may post public records that contain Social Security Numbers on her website, despite a 2008 Virginia law prohibiting the dissemination of such information.
While two wrongs generally don’t make a right, one has to see the irony in this case. And if Ostergren’s actions create awareness that ultimately leads to all Social Security numbers being redacted, then this wrong is right.
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