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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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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.

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 "The risks of having outdated data impacts whether somebody is extended credit or what rates they pay for certain services.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.

Privacy safeguards
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.”


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