There ought to be a law

On Data Privacy Day 2013, here’s  a reminder that we have a looooong way to go. KRQE in New Mexico reports:

 Hundreds of personal documents from dozens of people were all found in a very public place, but how did they get there and who’s at risk?

The court files were found in a Bernalillo County Recycling Center in Tijeras and contained people’s criminal histories, depositions and even medical records.

The files are from the Walz and Associates Law Firm.

“We want to make sure they don’t get into anybody’s hands that could maybe use it for identity theft,” said Kim McKibben Director of Bernalillo County’s Solid Waste Division.

Her office was called out to investigate when a passerby reported the incident to KRQE News 13. McKibben called in the Sheriff’s Office because the files contained people’s phone numbers, addresses and even medical records.

“They did determine that the age and origin of these documents did not need further investigation,” explained McKibben.

Authorities say the documents, even though they contain private information, are all public record, so technically it’s not illegal for them to be out in the open. That’s because the were all part of public court cases.

So how did they end up in a place where anyone can see them?

Investigators say the files belonged to a lawyer who recently died and someone was cleaning out his office. Instead of following proper procedure and shredding the papers, they were just tossed in the trash.

It’s a big no no, but it’s not criminal.

County officials say this is a lesson people can learn from.

“Anyone that finds anything like this needs to report it immediately so no one else can get their hands on it,” McKibben added.

She also says the documents, most of which dated back to the early 1990’s, were so old investigators wouldn’t be able to prosecute the person who put them there even if it was illegal.

The county removed all of the files from the recycling center and plans to shred them all just to be safe.

The lessons to be learned here are twofold:
1. This type of disposal problem happens with disturbing frequency and in many states, there’s no law making it illegal, although the bar association does have standards for protecting clients’ files. The age of some records shouldn’t matter as Social Security numbers do not change over time.
2. Dumping records with sensitive information should be illegal and people who dispose of sensitive data should be held accountable and liable. Saying that the records became public records because they were part of court records should not excuse the cavalier discarding of sensitive information that can expose people to risk of identity theft or stigma or discrimination. The courts may have an obligation to make some records available, but the original custodians of the records should still have a duty to protect the information.

About the author: Dissent