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LegiStorm Takes Down Sensitive Data

Congressional staffers can rest easy — their Social Security numbers and bank account data is no longer posted on LegiStorm, the Web site that publishes Congressional salaries and staffers’ financial disclosure forms.

“Every instance that something has been identified from a sensitive financial nature has been removed,” said Jock Friedly, who founded LegiStorm in 2006. “Social Security numbers, account numbers for investment trading accounts, all that stuff has been removed, as far as we know.”

LegiStorm began posting the disclosure forms last month with the goal of increasing access to the already publicly available data.

But while putting the forms online helps legitimate researchers, in some cases the financial disclosures contained confidential information that would make it easier for identity thieves and others to use for illegal purposes, according to House officials.

House Clerk Lorraine Miller, House ethics officials and LegiStorm have worked together in recent days to ensure that such sensitive information is removed from the Web or blacked out on the PDF forms.

The site also added a captcha feature on Monday, which requires the user to answer a simple question before getting access to any of the PDF forms, Friedly said. Captchas, which often require that users type in scrambled letters or numbers, are designed to ensure only humans — not automated computer programs — have access to Web sites, Friedly said.

But not everything staffers have complained about will be removed, including employee requests to have their signatures or home addresses taken down, Friedly said.

“We’ve just decided at some point, we have to draw the line,” Friedly said. “There’s certain information that we certainly understand shouldn’t be out there, like the Social Security numbers. On the other hand, home addresses are published in the phone book.”

Not all Congressional staffers are required to file financial disclosure forms. Staffers who must file are those who make 120 percent of the federal GS-15 base level salary, a figure which worked out to be just over $111,000 in 2007.

If nobody in a Congressional office makes that much, then one person is designated as the “principal assistant” and must file. In Senate offices, anyone who handles campaign finances must file.

All disclosure forms filed by those top-level staffers are posted on LegiStorm. The Web site also highlights interesting tidbits from about one-quarter of the reports, including information on where a staffer’s spouse works, gifts received from Members and notable prior employment.

The financial disclosure forms already have been used by investigative journalists and others to do research, Friedly said. Just days after LegiStorm launched the disclosure feature, news articles began to appear using information gathered from the forms, Friedly noted.

“It demonstrates that these records can be very useful to people,” he said.

But the posting of the disclosure forms also prompted immediate concern from those staffers who have to file, and LegiStorm has received a couple dozen or so phone calls or e-mails from people with specific concerns, Friedly said.

And while Friedly is sympathetic, he doesn’t believe all those concerns are valid. One chief of staff complained that putting his disclosure online has prompted a wave of calls from telemarketers, for example.

“The idea that telemarketers who have access to millions and millions of records are going to come to our site … I’m not saying that it’s impossible,” Friedly said. “It defies belief, in my opinion. I think while there is legitimate concern in some cases, there’s a lot of illegitimate concern and fear mongering, and frankly a little bit of hysteria on the hill.”

Capitol Hill officials seem to be confident that progress has been made on figuring out ways to remove sensitive information from LegiStorm.

“Given the potential for identity theft, we anticipate continued cooperative efforts with LegiStorm around this issue and assure Members and staff that every effort is being made to protect their personal information,” House Administration spokesman Kyle Anderson said.

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