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A Times Editorial

A failure to protect privacy

Audits are most valuable when their negative findings trigger positive changes. A recent internal audit by the Pinellas County clerk of the circuit court found systemic mishandling of the public's sensitive information in county and state offices. Documents with Social Security numbers, medical information and other legally protected data were found in trash containers at government buildings. Now it is up to the people responsible for ensuring the security of county and state records to make changes.

During a routine review by Pinellas clerk of the court auditors, large trash containers at 13 government complexes were examined. Where trash was found, investigators discovered a treasure trove of personal information, much of which is protected by state and federal law from unauthorized disclosure. Hundreds of improperly discarded records were found that included medical data, privileged communications between attorneys and clients, juvenile defendant records and child abuse materials.

When private citizens are obliged to turn over personal information to the state, they should have every reason to believe that such sensitive material will be properly handled. Records containing information protected by HIPAA, the federal health privacy law, or exemptions to state public records law, need to be shredded before being thrown away.

Mark Woodard, assistant county administrator, acknowledged that proper document disposal is an "absolute fiduciary and legal responsibility." Woodard said that renewed efforts are being made to ensure that employees follow procedures. But not every public official felt the audit had a message for them. Sheriff Jim Coats says he needs to see evidence that some of the documents at issue came from his offices. Coats says that since June a bulk shredding company has been enlisted for semimonthly service to shred sensitive records agencywide. The audit may have occurred before this new process had begun.

Ken Burke, clerk of the circuit court, also suggested that there was no way to tell which departments under his purview had improperly disposed of documents. But he says that he is emphasizing to staff members the need to shred juvenile data and sealed records. Burke is considering having his office spot check trash cans, a sensible step.

The findings suggest more needs to be done in Pinellas government to safeguard the public's privacy, and every official and administrator who has that in his or her job description should be more vigilant.

A failure to protect privacy 11/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 7:21pm]
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