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Court Documents Rife with Private Data

Publicly available federal court opinions and pleadings are brimming with private and personal information, including Social Security numbers, medical conditions and birth dates, concludes a preliminary audit conducted by Public.Resource.Org. Carl Malamud, the organization's president, describes the scope of the problem in an Oct. 24 letter to Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States. After examining opinions and other publicly accessible documents from 32 federal district courts, Malamud found 1,669 containing Social Security numbers and other personal information. His letter describes some of the "horror stories" he encountered:

  • In Massachusetts, a 54-page list filed in June 2008 contains the names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, and medical problems of 353 patients of a doctor.
  • In the District of Columbia, an attorney supported his claim against a school district for unpaid legal fees by listing  page after page of the names, home addresses, birth dates, and psychological issues for countless minors he saw.
  • In Alabama, lawyers routinely sign briefs with their Social Security numbers, and the court consistently exposes the Social Security numbers and birth dates of police officers, state employees, and even court administrators.
  • In Illinois, litigants involving pension funds representing labor unions frequently attach the unredacted list of all union members and their Social Security numbers.
  • In a huge number of IRS actions, unredacted tax returns are filed, including a large number where the redaction was performed incorrectly by simply placing a black box on top of the taxpayer ID, leaving the numbers untouched underneath the graphic.

I've written before about Malamud's work to put case law in the public domain (here, here and here). It was through that work that he became aware that some of the federal circuit cases he had published contained personal information such as Social Security and alien identification numbers. In a release covering 50 years of appellate decisions, he found 1,718 with personal identifiers. The worst offender was the 9th Circuit, with 990 such cases.

The discovery of this information in appellate cases led Malamud to undertake his review of District Court documents. You can follow the full paper trail from this link. As part of his analysis, Malamud plotted a "Privacy Problem Index" for the 32 courts, assigning them a numerical score and a letter grade. Among the courts with grades of D and F were Alaska, the Middle District of Alabama, the Central District of Illinois and the Southern District of Ohio. The one court given an "A+" for no privacy disclosures was the Southern District of Texas.

As an advocate of open government, I worry that reports such as this serve the side of secrecy. But Malamud's letter to Judge Rosenthal convincingly makes the case for even greater transparency. Although this information has been available to court staff and commercial publishers for several years, he notes, no one pointed out the privacy breaches until the material entered the public domain.

[P]ublic interest groups and the public in general, when given access to these public records, are able to provide the kind of feedback that leads to the correction of these privacy issues. As Justice Brandeis said, 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.' If we want to be serious about personal privacy, we can only do so if we are also serious about public access.

Malamud's letter to Judge Rosenthal promises to continue the review and offers to work with the federal courts to help redact personal information on a broader scale.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 28, 2008 at 01:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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