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The California secretary of state's office has shut down portions of its website after it was discovered it had been selling hundreds of thousands of public documents containing social security numbers and signatures, a practice that lasted for years. Several other states have also made available materials that reveal personal information, although it's not clear which, if any, have curbed the policy.

The California secretary's move came after a state assemblyman called attention to the practice of making Uniform Commercial Code documents, such as those memorializing loans, available online. A spokesman in Assemblyman Dave Jones's office said of some two million UCC documents online, about one-third, or about 600,000, contained an individual's name, address, social security number and often signature.

The discovery reveals the pitfalls of fostering open government in the age of online communication. Once upon a time, access to public documents required going to a musty clerk's office and poring over paper files. The availability of thousands of records on a single website makes it almost trivial for people to mine the data for nefarious purposes.

California is by no means the only state that has compromised the privacy of individuals. According to a March 23 update on the Virginia Watchdog site, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas and Indiana also make social security numbers available, although we were unable to confirm this claim one way or the other.

The site hosts a dozen records with personal information of public figures, including former US Secretary of State Colin Powell's deed of trust. "Why should any identity thief have to hack, dumpster dive, or phish when Circuit Court Clerks/Recorders/Secretaries of State are putting records online that contain personal information?" BJ Ostergren, the site's principal, argues. ®

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