NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · TEXAS · Freedom of Information · Feb. 26, 2007
Social Security numbers must be removed from records
Feb. 26, 2007 · An opinion by the state attorney general has sparked county-level government officials to block access to some public records for an unknown length of time out of fear they could be held liable for disclosing Social Security numbers.
Some county clerks have already pulled information off the Internet in response to the opinion as they search for the time and money to comply with redacting millions of records, said Joe Larsen, a media attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s Wednesday opinion said the state Legislature intended a 2005 amendment to the state’s Public Information Act to prevent the disclosure of all Social Security numbers of living persons on public documents. Confusion had surrounded the provision because the text of the law seemed to give government officials some discretion over whether to redact the information from otherwise public documents.
The opinion is expected to have the biggest effect on property records. Faced with criminal liability for improperly releasing the unredacted records, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Counties told the Houston Chronicle that county clerks have been forced to cut off access to the records while they find the time and resources to make the necessary redactions.
In determining that the removal of Social Security numbers from all county clerk records is mandatory, Abbott cited the legislative history of the law, the circumstances surrounding its enactment, the consequences of his decision, and other provisions of Texas law.
Abbott interpreted language in the law saying a government body “may redact” the Social Security number to merely exempt the government body from having to seek the permission of the attorney general, which is typically required when a redaction is made to a public document.
“The subsection pertains solely to the administrative procedure for processing requests for records that contain SSNs of living persons,” Abbott wrote.
Larsen disagreed with Abbott’s interpretation, saying that the Legislature made redaction by government bodies explicitly permissive, not mandatory.
Abbott bolstered his decision in part by pointing to other laws outside the Public Information Act that he said protected Social Security numbers. But Larsen disagreed with that analysis, saying Abbott simultaneously ignored provisions of the property code that explicitly make property records public.
“That really turns it on its head to make it expressly confidential,” Larsen said.
Larsen also criticized the portion of Abbot’s ruling that presumes “that a requested SSN belongs to a living person,” thereby requiring the redaction of the Social Security number, even when the subject of the record is in fact dead.
“To me, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors here,” Larsen said.
(Texas Att’y Gen Op. GA-0519) — NW