COLUMBUS (AP) -- Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell agreed Monday to remove Social Security numbers from financial documents posted on his agency's Web site. In a hearing before US District Judge Michael Watson in Cincinnati, Blackwell also agreed to take steps to prevent the numbers from being posted there in the future, and to remove the numbers from any documents posted in the future.
Blackwell's office is creating an online sign-in system requiring a password to search the financial files, said Frederick Erny, a private attorney representing Blackwell in the case.
The settlement resolves a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday by a southwest Ohio truck driver whose Social Security number appeared on Blackwell's Web site without his knowledge. Both sides will submit a final written document with complete details of the settlement to the judge within ten days, Erny said. Erny added that Blackwell was sensitive to the concerns raised by the lawsuit "and thought as a policy matter we should try to resolve the issue."
Blackwell acted correctly after initial resistance to removing the numbers, said Christian Jenkins, an attorney representing truck driver Darrel Estep. "What we've seen here is a 180-degree about-face and a decision to do the right thing," Jenkins said. "I see that as a very good result in a very short time."
Left unresolved by the agreement was a law requiring documents posted by the secretary of state to provide a Social Security number as an identification measure. Blackwell is working with lawmakers to address the discrepancy, said spokesman Carlo LoParo.
Both Democrats and Republicans plan legislation to keep the numbers private. The Social Security numbers appear on records of debts and other financial information used by banks and creditors in making loans and, by law, must be posted on the Internet within three days by the secretary of state.
Blackwell's office says most of the records were filed by attorneys or banks, rather than the people whose Social Security numbers were included. Blackwell's office says he didn't remove the numbers in the past because the state's only role was posting the documents, and because state law didn't address the specific situation of removing Social Security numbers on these particular documents.
Earlier this month, WTOL News 11 reported that, in this day of identity theft, Ohioans might be surprised what information the Ohio Secretary of State was making public. We directed viewers and readers of our Web site to Kenneth Blackwell's Web site, where they could see the problem for themselves. We let the public know that Blackwell's office was posting documents that contained the kind of sensitive, personal information people are routinely advised to keep private.
We also reported that shredding personal documents is common practice for east Toledoan Karen Adams. She told the problem solvers at Call 11 for Action, "I go to extreme lengths to protect my information." That's why Karen was stunned when we rattled off her husband's Social Security number. We got it from the Web site run by Ohio's Secretary of State.
"I'd like to know why," Karen said. "What is the purpose behind them having to have the information?"
The Secretary of State has been posting personal details of some people who have taken out certain loans. Karen couldn't believe that a loan for a tool box had made her a target for identity theft.
"I can't imagine that [there's] somebody out there that knows everything -- [the] ins and outs of how easy it would be for them to get this information," Karen said.
Karen knew exactly what she wanted the Secretary of State to do. She told Call 11 for Action, "My message is to close down the site."
Several lawmakers and others -- including Attorney General Jim Petro, Blackwell's opponent in the Republican primary for governor -- say the information should be protected. Sherri Dembinski, Blackwell's chief of staff, said most of the records were filed by attorneys or banks, rather than the affected people. She said it was optional to include the Social Security number.
Dembinski also says about 150,000 records were filed on the forms between July 2001 and May 2002, but the office didn't know how many contain Social Security numbers.
To have your personal information removed from the site, call the Secretary of State's office at 1-877-SOS-FILE (1-877-767-3453).
On the Web:
Secretary of State: http://www.sos.state.oh.us/
Posted by PJS