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Oops! AG Nearly Releases 13 Million SSNs

Voter ID lawyers caught the files just in the nick of time

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 4, 2012

Attorney General Greg Abbott
Attorney General Greg Abbott
Photo by Jana Birchum

Two years ago, Comptroller Susan Combs' staff accidentally put the private data of 3.2 million Texans online. Now Attorney General Greg Abbott's staff nearly went one step further, almost releasing millions of Social Sec­urity numbers. The only thing that saved them from a monumental data breach were the eagle-eyed lawyers challenging Abbott and the state's voter ID bill.

The gaffe was revealed in court papers filed in the ongoing voter ID preclearance trial in Washington, D.C. Hearings are scheduled to begin July 9, but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the various voter rights groups are asking for that to be rescheduled. They say Abbott's office has been dragging its feet through the discovery process, either failing to hand over data or doing it so slowly as to make a real review nearly impossible.

In a rescheduling request filed on April 23, the intervenors laid out details of one delay that verged on dangerous farce. On April 2, after the court ordered that the state hand over the voter registration databases, Abbott's office released the data on encrypted, password-protected discs. The files, delivered by law enforcement courier, contained private data about 13 million registered voters. They were only supposed to include the last four digits of voters' Social Security numbers; Instead, the state sent a file containing some full nine-digit numbers. As soon as the anti-voter-ID attorneys realized this error, they notified the state and ceased reviewing the files. Abbott's office then had to fly couriers to D.C. and New York to personally collect the discs and replace them with the correct version. Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle, who broke the story, wrote, "Had the files not been handled carefully and responsibly by legal counsel opposing Abbott, as many as 13 million Texas voters' Social Secur­ity numbers could have been exposed to potential illegal misuse and identity theft."

Abbott's office claims this is a storm in a tea cup. Spokesman Jerry Strickland said, "At no time were any Social Security numbers or private information ever compromised, nor were they made public." The AG's Office believed that there were only four-digit numbers in the file and, Strickland added, "Once we learned that there were some nine digit social security numbers, we immediately acted." However, the AG's Office did not know how many entries were four or nine digits, and had no details on why any nine-digit numbers were included.

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