12/17/07 — County governments look to guard residents' private information online

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County governments look to guard residents' private information online

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on December 17, 2007 1:46 PM

You might have sympathy for this old story -- leaving something important on the hood or trunk of a car, only to drive away and lose it on highways unknown.

Two emergency medical workers in Cabarrus County had it happen to them in late October -- only their lost laptop affected more than their work.

The laptop, left on an ambulance's bumper, also contained the Social Security numbers, addresses and names of 28,000 Cabarrus County residents.

It isn't the first breach of computer data security in North Carolina history, and surely won't be the last -- security texts note that no computer system is impenetrable.

From the Cabarrus County incident, other counties might construe that protection of data is about more than well-updated computer code: Counties' customer data must be physically protected as well as digitally.

In terms of publicly available records, officials like Wayne County Register of Deeds Lois J. Mooring say current state law is playing catch-up.

But in the case of mobile data, Wayne County is pretty well-protected, according to County Manager Lee Smith.

Smith said he had heard "through the grapevine about other counties" suffering problems with data security on mobile devices.

"We don't allow any personal information on mobile devices," Smith said. "That would include the laptops except for a few caseworkers."

Those caseworkers in the Health Department and the Department of Social Services have extra protection, the county manager said.

"That information is encrypted," Smith said.

Encryption is a method of concealing data using a computer program that hides information from anyone who doesn't hold certain information. That information is often referred to as a key.

But encryption isn't perfect.

In Cabarrus County, the laptop still has not turned up, county spokesperson Aimee Hawkins said. But the data is protected by a two-password combo, Ms. Hawkins said.

Its loss initially prompted a flood of calls from citizens worried about identity theft. The tide of calls has abated some now, Ms. Hawkins said.

Report of the laptop's loss came just as Cabarrus County officials prepared to make changes that would secure the data of emergency medical workers.

"We had already approved ... work to change over to (an Internet-based) system where information like this would not be stored directly on a hard drive," Ms. Hawkins said.

The software will be in place in January, but for Cabarrus County, the fix came just a little too late.

Lost computers aren't the only way to lose sensitive data -- Johnston County Manager Rick Hester had to seek a temporary court order against search giant Google when a file with Social Security numbers and other data was posted online.

Remnants of the file -- meant for financial institutions-- were still logged in Google's web-crawling servers. Johnston officials worried that financial criminals might make off with the data while still available in November last year.

Overall, your personal information might be more accessible to thieves than you might think.

On records filed before 2005 with county registers of deeds offices, your Social Security number probably appears in plain text, even in documents available online.

Craig Olive, Johnston County's deed registration official, says he has been lobbying state officials for the power to redact records filed before the Identity Theft Protection Act took effect.

Mrs. Mooring said that on new records, workers are supposed to redact -- that means black out -- Social Security number on filed documents.

That's usually done with a marker, Mrs. Mooring said.

On older documents, residents must submit a form that asks for the specific piece of information a resident wants removed from the county Web site.

Mrs. Mooring says she, too, wants the power to redact Social Security numbers -- sometimes even bank account numbers -- from online records.

"So many registers didn't have Web sites for a long time, so this information didn't really matter," Mrs. Mooring said. "But now people are looking at the information that we have all over the world."