Information age puts public more at risk

The Information Age means instant data, news, opinions and entertainment at our fingertips. It also means our personal information is less safe than ever before, leading to identity theft and other breaches of privacy.

One serious case developed in the middle of July when the names of 1,300 supposedly “illegal” immigrants were released to law-enforcement officials and news organizations, along with such private details as Social Security numbers, medical records and addresses. According to The New York Times story, releasing the medical information is a federal felony, while releasing the other data is a misdemeanor. Some version of the list may have been sent to law enforcement as early as April.

The information was purported to be from a group called “Concerned Citizens of the United States.” The release of the list stirred up debate again about immigration, including many references to Arizona’s controversial immigration law, which is being challenged by the Obama administration in federal court. Pro-immigrant groups denounced the list as a bigoted right-wing attack on immigrants.

But last week, Reuters reported from Salt Lake City, “The Utah Department of Workforce Services announced the termination of one temporary employee who maintained a database containing information found on the list, and said a second employee would be fired soon.” So the real issue here isn’t so much the contentious one of immigration, but abuse of government databases.

“This is an extremely serious breach of privacy,” said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Right Clearinghouse, a privacy watchdog group based in San Diego. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. I give the agency high marks for dismissing the employees who copied and released the data. It’s important that the results of the investigation be made public. Facts need to be disclosed so officials and lawmakers can make sure this never happens again.”

Prevention is a key. People obviously need to be more careful with information on their own personal and business computers. But citizens are at the mercy of government actions. “Agencies need to have iron-clad information-security programs in place,” she urged. “Access ought to be based on a need-to-know basis. Information as serious as this ought to be encrypted. It should not have been so easy for employees such as these to obtain and release this sensitive information.”

We would add that another way to reduce such breaches is to reduce the amount of information government collects. After all, when Social Security numbers were first given out in the 1930s, the government promised they would never become personal identification numbers — yet they have, as this new scandal shows.