Court turns tables on alleged ID thief, leaks his personal info

By , IDG News Service |  Security

Things just aren't going well for Timothy Scott Short.

Just days after a pair of tech support calls he made to printer manufacturer
Digimarc Corp. resulted in his arrest, he now finds himself on the receiving
end of a data breach with his Social Security number and birthdate accidentally
made public via the federal court's Electronic Case Files (ECF) system.

It's an ironic development, because Short, 33, was arrested in connection with
the Oct. 5 theft of a Missouri Department of Revenue printer and a PC containing
data on as many as 500 state residents.

Short's personal information was discovered by the IDG News Service, listed
on a court document called a Criminal Case Cover Sheet, which was publicly available
to users of the ECF system. Normally, this document should only be accessible
to those involved in the case, but it appears to have been inadvertently made
public, according to a clerk with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District
of Missouri, who asked not to be identified because she was not authorized to
speak with the press. "It's something on our side," she said, adding
that technical staff are now looking into the problem.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for U.S. courts, has said that
this kind of information should be removed from publicly available electronic
court records, but actually removing all the sensitive information has proved
difficult.

"If you went online to various court systems, you could find social security
numbers of many individuals," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and
advocacy with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "It's a really, really
difficult question to answer, just because you're dealing with so many jurisdictions."

Social Security numbers are the building blocks of identity theft crime because
they can be used to secure credit cards. "Any time you are placing Social
Security numbers online, your are subjecting that person to identity theft,"
Stephens said.

With the push to make public documents available online, other government databases
have had similar problems. Earlier this year, the states of California and Colorado
were forced to take their Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) databases offline after
privacy advocates pointed out that the Social Security numbers and other data
they contained could be misused by identity thieves.

Short, however, may have bigger problems to worry about. He's facing US$250,000
in fines and 10 years in prison on charges of possession of "document-making
implements" in connection with the theft. He was arrested after U.S. Secret
Service Special Agent John Bush recognized his voice in calls placed to a tech
support line of the company that makes the stolen printer.

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