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The Key Fob Incident
by Robert Franco | 2007/02/27 |

A few years ago I had an embarrassing moment - one of those moments when you hope nobody was watching. I was running a little late for work. On the way to my car, I pressed the unlock button on my key fob. But, when I got to the door it was still locked. I pressed the unlock button again but I didn't hear that familiar click of the locks. "Hmmm... what's the problem?" I thought. So I pressed it again, still nothing. I pressed it again, again, and again. "Must be a dead battery," my internal monologue continued. "Great, I'm already running late. I have no idea where the heck I put the other key fob. Why me... why today?"

Then, it hit me, that embarrassment that turns your face red. I just smiled and hoped that nobody was watching, or worse yet, eavesdropping on my internal monologue. Dangling from the other end of my key chain was the KEY. For crying out lout - how dumb I felt. For a brief moment, I forgot that I could actually insert the key and twist it to unlock the door.

Now, if you can stop laughing at me for just a moment, I'll make point; and that is, we have become so accustomed to using technology that we sometimes forget that it is not the only way to do things.

I bring this up today because many of the counties across the country have been pulling their records from the Internet in light of security concerns over the personal information that is sometimes contained in the public records. Most recently, counties in Texas have been responding to an opinion from Greg Abbott, the Attorney General, that indicates that county clerks may be subjected to criminal penalties for publishing social security numbers on the Internet.

The social security number ("SSN") of a living person is confidential and subject to mandatory exception from required disclosure under section 552.147(a) of the Public Information Act ("PIA"). Distributing confidential information under the PIA is a criminal offense. Section 552.147(b) of the PIA provides an administrative procedure by which a government body may redact confidential SSNs from public information without first obtaining an attorney general decision.

The confidentiality of SSNs of living persons under 552.147 of the PIA applies to all county clerk records subject to the PIA.

Section 552.147 of the PIA does not authorize a county clerk to redact SSNs from original documents maintained in the clerk's records.

When a county clerk redacts a SSN from a copy of a document maintained by the clerk's office, the clerk may label the copy as a "certified copy," but such certification must reflect that SSNs have been redacted.

Prior to posting a record on the Internet, the clerk must redact the SSNs of living persons from any record subject to the PIA.

For purposes of section 552.147 of the PIA, a governmental body may presume that a requested SSN belongs to a living person unless the facts before the governmental body show otherwise.

I have read the full opinion and I must say that it makes perfect sense to me. Abbot correctly concludes that in light of the growing trend of identity theft, the potential harm from the uncontrolled release of SSNs to the general public is high, while the public need for the disclosure is not significant. Furthermore, for years Texas has recognized exceptions to the public disclosure of SSNs for public employees and officials, crime victims, voters, etc. There are three laws that except the SSNs of sex offenders from public disclosure. As Abbot stated in the opinion, "If the Texas Legislature has seen fit to protect SSNs of convicted sex offenders, surely the Legislature intended for regular law-abiding citizens to be entitled to the same protection."

I was amazed to see some of the commentary floating around on the Internet about this opinion, mostly from title professionals. You would think that the world was going to suddenly stop spinning on its axis. Many folks seem to think that pulling public records from the Internet is somehow going to cause the real estate industry to grind to a halt. That is simply not the case.

The records are still available at the courthouse and "real" title abstractors will still be able to provide reliable title searches to the title industry. In fact, eliminating the on-line access will most likely result in more thorough searches that are only possible at the courthouse.

I don't think that anyone ever conceived that "open records" would mean that our county records should be displayed on the Internet for world consumption. Those records are an asset of the community that built them, not a commodity to be traded with the world. Protecting that asset should be a top priority of the elected officials. County officials that electronically publish their records are doing their constituents a huge disservice for the benefit of greedy corporations, or worse yet, criminals that have learned to use the data for illegal purposes.

If you have a problem with the records being removed from the Internet, remember that when the key fob doesn't work, you still have the key dangling on the other end of the key chain. Just like our county records tucked away in the safe confines of the courthouse, the key doesn't require batteries. They are reliable and available whenever you need them.

Robert A. Franco

Source of Title Blog ::


Categories: Abstractors, Texas Legislation, Title Industry

1267 words | 3004 views | 2 comments | log in or register to post a comment

"I don't think that anyone ever con...
"I don't think that anyone ever conceived that "open records" would mean that our county records should be displayed on the Internet for world consumption. Those records are an asset of the community that built them, not a commodity to be traded with the world."

I do wish more folks (especially the ones who make decisions about those records!) understood this very basic idea. A county's land records should be kept within that county, I believe. While putting them online in some fashion may be convenient for searchers, and it's DEFINITELY convenient for long-distance search agents and clearinghouse-type companies, it holds the dual potentials for letting loose private information, and it screws the local searcher.

This brings to mind a comment overheard once while running a search. I suspect it wasn't meant for the ears of anyone who wasn't a county employee. The comment was that the ROD here was the ONLY department within the county turning its own profits. As technology allows, ROD's are putting their information out through pay-sites around here. Want easy access? Buy into it. Oh, and you still have to pay copy costs, on top of your monthly access fees. Again, forget the local guy, the little guy. (Sorry, seem to have gone off on something of a tangent!)
by Ben Kohnen | 2007/02/27 | log in or register to post a reply

Rob, it doesn't get any clearer tha...
Rob, it doesn't get any clearer than that! Now if we could just have your blog deemed "Required Reading" by all clerks, registrars, and title cos! 
by Jan Forster | 2007/02/27 | log in or register to post a reply
Source of Title Blog

Robert A. FrancoThe focus of this blog will be on sharing my thoughts and concerns related to the small title agents and abstractors. The industry has changed dramatically over the past ten years and I believe that we are just seeing the beginning. As the evolution continues, what will become of the many small independent title professionals who have long been the cornerstone of the industry?

Robert A. Franco



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