City Accidentally Releases Thousands of Retirees’ Social Security Numbers

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


The City of Providence on Tuesday accidentally released the Social Security numbers of nearly 3,000 former employees in response to a public records request.

In February, GoLocalProv filed an Access to Public Records Act request to obtain information about pension recipients in the capital city. The city’s legal team responded by e-mailing a .pdf file which listed every retiree, their retirement date, the date they began receiving a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA), and the amount they receive each month.

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The list also included columns for Social Security numbers and employee identification numbers that appeared to be redacted, but when the document was enlarged, the numbers were clearly on display. A closer review revealed that the city had only altered the “highlight” color of the document and that a change to the color revealed every retiree’s most personal information.

It is unclear how many copies of the file, which is accessible to any reporter or member of the public who requests it, have been sent out. It is also unclear if such a mistake has been made in the past.

City Files Restraining Order

A city spokesman was informed of the mistake shortly before 1 p.m. and said he would provide a statement after consulting with city lawyers. Instead, the city filed for a restraining order in an attempt to prevent a story from being written.

Despite GoLocalProv explaining to the city both over the phone and through e-mail that it never intended to post any retiree’s Social Security numbers, the city requested that all records be destroyed and asked that the website refrain from publishing anything regarding the document. In court, Assistant City Solicitor Kevin F. McHugh argued that the numbers posed potentially "irreparable damage," to the city's retirees, especially in a "9/11" world.

GoLocalProv agreed that all documents should be deleted, but Judge Sarah Taft-Carter said she did not see sufficient justification to bar publication of a story--so long as no sensitive personal information was disclosed.

"I know it's embarrassing for the city," Taft-Carter said. “But I'm not sure if that's the standard."

Retirees Concerned About Release

The city is currently attempting to negotiate massive concessions from former city employees in its quest to remain solvent. Early this month, Mayor Angel Taveras held a forum with retirees to discuss the city’s financial woes. Providence faces a $22.5 million deficit in the current fiscal year and Taveras has said he plans to freeze all cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs) for retirees in an attempt to avoid municipal bankruptcy.

Representatives who retired from each of the major unions in the city have been asked to form committees by the end of this week to begin in-depth talks with the Taveras administration. The city hopes to have an agreement in place by May, but it has noted that any attempt to alter retirees’ pensions will likely end up in court.

But a lawyer and several retirees on Tuesday offered mixed opinions about the city mistakenly releasing sensitive information in a public records request.

“I'm sure it was done in error,” said Joseph Penza, the lawyer who represents the retired police officers firefighters.

“This had to be a terrible mistake, but I don’t want [a reporter] or anyone knowing my Social Security number,” one retiree said. “How could this happen?”

“I just hope [the city] lets everyone know what happened,” another retiree said. “You can never be too safe these days. I’d like to know how many people saw the document and why the Social Security numbers were there in the first place.”

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Other former city employees said they were outraged. Former Mayor and City Council President John Lombardi and former union president Stephen Day, two outspoken critics of the current administration, demanded the city investigate the accidental release further.

“As a lawyer and a citizen, I feel this is a complete violation of my rights,” Lombardi said. “It’s an invasion of privacy. It’s unconscionable. [The pension records] are certainly publicly information, but not the Social Security number.”

Day said if the personal information for thousands of retirees fell into the wrong hands, it could be “Christmas for criminals.” He said an outside investigation should be conducted and suggested the city “pay for LifeLock or PrivacyGuard for every retiree” to make sure their personal information remains safe moving forward.

Identity Theft Concerns

The accidental release of sensitive personal information in a public records request is not uncommon, although the amount of Social Security numbers provided by the city is significant. Last March, the Bloomfield Hills School District in Michigan agreed to purchase one-year ProtectMyID plans for 321 employees whose Social Security numbers were released to two individuals.

In 2010, a New Jersey school district also released hundreds of Social Security numbers following a public records request.

According to a report released by the Governor Accountability Office (GAO) last year, there were 248,357 tax-related identity theft incidents in 2010, up from just 51,702 incidents in 2008. In testimony to the Senate subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth, Florida Senator Bill Nelson called identity theft a “serious and growing problem in the United States.”

“The hundreds of thousands of taxpayers with tax problems caused by identity theft represent a small percentage of the expected 140 million individual returns filed, but for those affected, the problems can be quite serious,” he said.


With reports from Greg Berman.

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