Harm Mitigation from the Release of Personal Identity Information

Harm Mitigation from the Release of Personal Identity Information

Andrew S. Patrick (Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada & Carleton University, Canada) and L. Jean Camp (Indiana University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-501-4.ch013
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Abstract

In August 2007 approximately 445,000 letters were sent to retirees who belonged to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). This was a routine mailing, but all or a portion of each pensioner’s Social Security Number (SSN) was printed on the address panel of the envelopes, making this event all but ordinary. This massive breach of sensitive SSNs, along with names and addresses, exposed these people to potential identity theft and fraud. What are the harms associated with a data breach of this nature? How can those harms be mitigated? What are, or should be, the costs and consequences to the organization releasing the data? While it is very difficult to predict the specific consequences of a data breach of this nature, a statistical model can be used to estimate the likely financial repercussions for individuals and organizations, and the recent settlement in the TJX case provides a good model of harm mitigation that could be applied in this case and similar cases.
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Data Governance Best Practices

“Data governance” refers to the procedures put in place to mange the collection, storage, and use of information in an organization. With the amount of information being processed by organizations increasing all the time, data governance is crucial not only for maintaining the health and effectiveness of the organization, but also for protecting any sensitive information being held. Good data governance is not optional, and it must be part of a long-term process that ensures that organizations control the data they have been entrusted with (Smith, 2007).

The State of California has recognized the importance of good data governance, and they have also emphasized the special importance of protecting the SSN:

The Social Security Number (SSN) has a unique status as a privacy risk. No other form of personal identification plays such a significant role in linking records that contain sensitive information that individuals generally wish to keep confidential. (California Office of Privacy Protection, 2008)

The public disclosure of the SSN was prohibited starting in 2003 and in 2004 laws were passed banning the use of SSNs on pay stubs. California has even recognized the specific risk involved in the CalPERS case, printing SSNs on the outside of envelopes:

When sending applications, forms or other documents required by law to carry SSNs through the mail, place the SSN where it will not be revealed by an envelope window. Where possible, leave the SSN field on forms and applications blank and ask the individual to fill it in before returning the form or application. (California Office of Privacy Protection, 2008)

The California Civil Code, Sections 1798.85-1798.86 (a) (5), explicitly prohibits the disclosure of SSNs on envelopes:

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