Private Info For All World To See

Vaughn Walker
AP Image Ingested via Automated Feed

B.J. Ostergren is on a very public mission to convince lawmakers across the country to keep the most sensitive personal information private.

"I grabbed on to this like a pit bull on steroids and I don't intend on letting go," she says.

Ostergren shows how even top national figures, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, are vulnerable. Ostergren was able to get her hands on his home address and wife's social security number.

"That's the address to his home," she says, pointing at her computer monitor. "And there is his and his wife's Social Security number. I wonder if they know that."

As CBS News Correspondent Jim Acosta reports, there's nothing new about getting your hands on sensitive information in public records. The records were always available at the county courthouse. What is new is that depending on where you live, the courthouse is in your computer.

That's because more and more county clerk Web sites are feverishly putting vast numbers of public records online, from traffic tickets to deed records.

"I'll show you how easy it is," she says. "I'm just going to put in Porter ... We have got Porter J. Goss records right here. It's the new director of the CIA. There is Porter J. Goss' Social Security number in Lee County, Florida."

"Anyone, anyone - capitalize it, underline it, put in italics – anyone, because they are public records, can have access to electronic records because that is the law," says Ostergren.

She says leaving these sites wide open invites identity theft.

Just ask sports arena manager Jim Moehring.

After his Social Security number was exposed on a county clerk's Web site, a criminal opened up seven credit cards in his name racking up $11,000 in charges.

"Putting somebody's entire life on a computer screen without any kind of filters on it is ridiculous. It's crazy," says Moehring.

But open government advocate Frosty Landon argues the benefits that an open society gains from having full access to information far outweigh the risk.

"How do you have an informed citizen if there's no access to public records?" says Landon. "People can have access to public records without being a lawyer, who knows the way around the courthouse."

Now, you just have to know your way around a computer.

"Anyone can have access," says Ostergren. "Whether it's a burglar or whether it might be someone in Timbuktu."

To stop that burglar in Timbuktu, Ostergren has deputized herself the new sheriff in the new and very public world of public records.