From Sunday’s paper:
BY JOHN ESTUS, PAUL MONIES – THE OKLAHOMAN and GAVIN OFF – Tulsa World
2010 Copyright © The Oklahoman
The state of Oklahoma makes tens of millions of dollars selling personal information about people that some lawmakers and labor organizations want kept secret for government employees, The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World have learned.
At least $65 million has been made in the past five years from the sale of millions of motor vehicle records that include birth dates and other personal information of all state drivers, Department of Public Safety records show.
A private company has collected about $15 million conducting most of those transactions on behalf of the state, records show.
As a result, birth dates and other personal information flow freely on a daily basis to insurance companies, employment screening services, government agencies, attorneys, individuals and more.
While the state earns money selling records that include birth dates, lawmakers and some labor groups are working to shut off access to birth dates of public employees to the public, The Oklahoman and others working on the public’s behalf. Senate Bill 1753, by Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, would exempt government worker birth dates from the state’s Open Records Act.
Leftwich, Terrill and supporters of the bill claim releasing birth dates could endanger the safety of employees and lead to identity theft. They have provided no evidence of such harm being done in the past as a result of birth dates being public.
Leftwich and Terrill did not return calls Friday seeking comment on the state selling motor vehicle records that include birth dates.
One privacy expert said keeping birth dates secret won’t help protect workers’ identities or safety because the information is already available elsewhere.
“What I would tell them is, ‘Stop trying to shut the barn door after the horses are gone,’” said Richard J.H. Varn, chief information officer for the city of San Antonio and executive director of Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access. “It’s a lack of understanding by policy makers to what an effective countermeasure is to identity theft.”
Birth dates of public employees are presumed open records in Oklahoma under a recent attorney general opinion. They make it possible for the public to accurately identify government workers whose salaries they pay with tax dollars. Birth dates are found in numerous public documents, making them crucial components of background checks because they allow the public to differentiate between people with common names.
Government agencies have for years provided their employees’ birth dates in response to open records requests.
Records easy to get
Among the most widely distributed records that include birth dates are the motor vehicle records the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety maintains for all licensed drivers.
Motor vehicle records include driver names, birth dates, driver’s license numbers and recent driving histories. Some of that information is not available under the state Open Records Act.
Motor vehicle records can be bought online or in person. The state gets $10 per record, and most of the money goes into the state’s general fund, said Wellon Poe, chief legal counsel for the Department of Public Safety.
Top clients are clearing houses that sell the information to insurance companies and corporations, Poe said.
In order to get motor vehicle records, requesters must sign agreements saying they are authorized to receive the information under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. The act contains more than a dozen possible scenarios that allow numerous public and private organizations and individuals to obtain the records.
The requester must also provide the name and another unique identifier — such as an address or driver’s license number — of the person whose record they are requesting, Poe said.
Poe said it’s tough to prove whether those who sign the agreements meet the requirements to begin with.
“We don’t go out and run a big background check on somebody that walks in and tries to get an MVR,” Poe said.
State tag agents also sell motor vehicle records. Money made from those sales flows through the state Tax Commission and wasn’t included in the revenue records provided by the Department of Public Safety, Poe said.
Most of the records are bought online for $12.50 each, with $10 going to the state and a $2.50 processing fee going to the company that operates the state’s Web site.
NIC Inc., the operator of www.ok.gov , has made an estimated $15 million off those fees in the past five years, according to an analysis of Department of Public Safety revenue records.
The Kansas-based company has contracts to run government Web sites in 22 other states. The Office of State Finance in December renewed the state’s contract with Oklahoma Interactive LLC, an NIC subsidiary that the state has contracted with for Web services since 2001.
Of the $132.9 million in revenue NIC reported in 2009, nearly half came from selling motor vehicle records and driver’s license data from the states it serves, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
In marketing materials and news releases, NIC emphasizes that its services are offered at no cost to states, an important selling point because of budget shortfalls. The revenue from motor vehicle records sales has allowed the company to provide more than 280 services online for state government in Oklahoma.
Chris Neff, vice president of marketing for NIC, said companies such as ChoicePoint/LexisNexis, Insurance Information Exchange, American Driving Records and Acxiom Information Security Services regularly buy motor vehicle records from Oklahoma.
“The biggest single reason why they’re pulling it is because they use the driver history information to set rates for your annual renewal for your vehicle policy,” Neff said.
Neff said those companies also package the same information with other sources such as credit reports, property records and criminal histories. Those companies often use birth dates as secondary identifiers to distinguish people with common names from one another, he said.
“All those data points may be used, but there are restrictions as part of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act in how that information may be used and how often it may be used,” Neff said. “The risks of having outdated data impacts whether somebody is extended credit or what rates they pay for certain services. It’s incumbent on having accurate, regularly refreshed information.”
Schools sell information, too
Elsewhere, birth date information is available to third parties from public schools, colleges and universities. A federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, governs the release of student directory information. That information is also available under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
The directory information includes a student’s name, birth date, telephone number and address, along with other records. Schools must allow students to opt out of the disclosure, though local school officials said students rarely do.
Since 2000, Oklahoma State University has provided or sold student directory information 242 times, records show. In at least 19 cases, the data included birth dates.
“It could have been a lot more,” OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said.
OSU has sold student birth dates to a party store, a church and the university’s faculty council, for example. It also has provided student birth dates to the military for free.
Shutt said the university recently began providing year of birth instead of date of birth for standard directory information requests. OSU made the switch because some students use birth dates as passwords for various accounts. However, Shutt said OSU would likely provide birth dates upon request and no one has complained about the university providing the information.
The University of Oklahoma also provides student directory information to entities that request it, but it has not provided birth dates since at least 2008, said Rachel McCombs, OU’s open records officer.
An open records request by the Tulsa World for a list of recipients of OU student directory information is pending.
Concealing birth dates in public records is not an effective measure to fight identity theft because birth dates are available in so many other places, said Varn, the privacy expert from San Antonio.
“It’s like saying because terrorists use airplanes we’re going to quit flying,” Varn said. “No. There are worthy countermeasures.”
Birth dates can be found in voter registration records, driver’s licenses, lawsuits and even registration forms for some Web sites.
“If you want to buy someone’s full identity, you can buy it for 30 cents to $60 on the black market,” said Varn, who served for 12 years in the Iowa General Assembly.
Sponsors of the Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access, which Varn represents, include some of the largest data resellers in the country.
Varn said governments should encourage people to monitor their credit reports, protect their personal computers with security software and ask online businesses to require a password with transactions that use credit cards.
But they shouldn’t block access to public data, he said.
“They sell it for good reason,” Varn said. “People actually need it to do good things in the world.”
For example, employers use birth dates to help run background checks on job applicants. Journalists use birth dates to help find everything from sex offenders who drive school buses to felons who have gun permits.
“Clearly, we’ve had examples of public employees being hired and faulty background checks being done,” said Joey Senat, an open records expert and associate journalism professor at Oklahoma State University. “It’s unfortunate, but we need to know with whom we deal with in life, and this is a way to do it.”
Written by Paul Monies