~ PACER – federal courts and social security numbers ~

PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), the online index of Federal court filings, is redacting personal identifiers, in accordance with the privacy policy of the Judicial Conference of 2001. Social Security Numbers in civil, criminal and bankruptcy filings are now truncated to the last four digits.

In 2001 the Federal courts began the process of requiring electronic filing of documents [Case Management and Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF)]. The Judicial Conference determined that it was incumbent upon attorneys filing documents to redact certain information including social security numbers.

Case documents filed prior to the implementation of the privacy rules will not be altered to comport with the new policy. Civil and bankruptcy documents are available through the electronic public access system but criminal filings are not.

Contentcentricblog summarizes the policy related to publishing personal information.

Attorneys also will have to redact certain information from court pleadings before filing them electronically. Last year the Judicial Conference of the United States adopted a national policy barring publication of sensitive information in electronic filings, including Social Security numbers, names of minor children, dates of birth, financial account numbers and home addresses. That information, if necessary to the case, may be filed in an unredacted copy under seal.

Eddy McClain, in his role as past President of the National Council of Investigation and Security Services (NCISS) warned against the rush to remove selected personal identifiers.

All investigations require positive identification of subjects. Courts do not tolerate incomplete evidence and investigators must constantly be able to differentiate between the true subject(s) of an investigation and persons with similar names or identification.

McClain added that while protecting people from identity theft is warranted, there’s an unseen hazard in restricting personal identifiers. Referring to bankruptcy records McClain noted, “When a “Robert Smith”files for bankruptcy, the other Robert Smiths of the world have a right not to be confused with the petitioner.” I would add, nor risk employment or good will through a false association with a litigant in a criminal or civil case.

The March 2005 update from the U.S. Courts web site on CM/ECF suggests that all of the Federal Courts will have instituted mandatory electronic filing by the end of this year.

CM/ECF systems are now in use in 68 district courts, 81 bankruptcy courts, the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims. Most of these courts are accepting electronic filings. Over 18 million cases are on CM/ECF systems. And over 160,000 attorneys and others have filed documents over the Internet. Under current plans, the number of CM/ECF courts will increase steadily each month through 2005.

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