by Max Brantley
The Quorum Court last night discussed a complaint from a citizen who's discovered that some -- though by no means all -- real estate records added to the Internet by the Pulaski clerk's office sometimes contain Social Security numbers, typically on the older documents, but not always then.
Contrary to the complainant's belief, this is not illegal. Clerk Pat O'Brien is taking the proper stance in moving to put as much of the PUBLIC RECORD on-line as he can. Court rules in Arkansas have, for years, required attorneys not to include Social Security numbers in court pleadings, but real estate documents (deeds, mortgages, etc.) do not fall under that rule. And it appears that the numbers stopped appearing on real estate documents years ago. So the question: Do you take all real estate records off-line because some might have Social Security numbers? (I've owned five houses in Little Rock over the years since 1976. The records that are still on-line for me contain no S.S. numbers, just by way of example.)
O'Brien doesn't want to remove the records in toto and I think he's right. He says he will white out and replace records with S.S. numbers for those who ask. And he's purchased software that will automatically delete the numbers when paper files are digitized for on-line storage. It will take some time to cleanse past records already on-line. That seems like a sensible approach to me. The hunt for numbers is something akin to a needle-in-a-haystack search. Of course, thanks to the complaint, which will be the subject of news articles this week, a lot more people will know about the potential for finding numbers there. But ease of access to public records weighs in favor of O'Brien's approach.
This issue has arisen elsewhere. Here's an older Washington Post article on the subject, from January.