Oklahoma brings in millions by selling personal data

BY JOHN ESTUS, PAUL MONIES - THE OKLAHOMAN and GAVIN OFF - Tulsa World Modified: April 5, 2010 at 4:51 pm •  Published: April 4, 2010
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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.

Sales lucrative
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.


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