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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Westlaw finds itself in the middle of an intensely growing debate over consumer identity theft and the safety of personal information, following the disclosure last month by financial data warehouse ChoicePoint of a massive security breach affecting thousands of people.
Westlaw has ''egregious loopholes'' in one of its Internet data services that would allow thieves to harvest the Social Security numbers and financial identities of millions of people, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., charged last week. He pledged to introduce legislation to curb data services that contribute to identity theft.
Westlaw, an online legal research service primarily used by attorneys, denied that the information Schumer complained about is available to the general public.
But a nonprofit privacy advocacy organization says services that collect and sell public and privately available data, like Westlaw's People-Find feature, present a sticky problem because while they are useful in the right hands, they also are ripe for abuse.
Schumer's complaint expanded concerns over privacy following the recent news of the security breach at ChoicePoint, an Atlanta firm that inadvertently sold consumer data, including Social Security numbers, to ID thieves last year.
ChoicePoint has said it may have compromised the personal information of 145,000 Americans. The possible victims are being notified by the company by mail.
Schumer's complaint stemmed from a constituent in the federal courts who brought Westlaw's People-Find feature to his attention. The U.S. Senate has the People-Find feature as well, which can be accessed by anyone from a senator to an intern, a Schumer staff member said.
''This search engine could be called `Identity Theft for Dummies,' '' Schumer complained in a letter to Peter Warwick, Westlaw president and chief executive officer, that he released during a press conference last week.
To illustrate his point, Schumer had his staff prepare blow-ups of People-Find Web pages featuring celebrities like Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Paris Hilton as well as government officials like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vice President Dick Cheney. Personal information and Social Security numbers were blacked out.
''We share Sen. Schumer's serious concerns about identity theft. We have been working with his office on this issue, communicated our mutual concerns and provided information on our strict policies regarding access to Social Security numbers,'' said a prepared statement from Thomson West, a Canadian company that co-owns Westlaw along with the Eagan, Minn.-based West Group.
The Senate requested full access to databases containing Social Security numbers, but for government customers, this policy is being replaced with an ''opt in'' policy, where each user must request, and provide justification, for access to databases containing Social Security numbers, Thomson West said.
Thomson West contended that only law enforcement, government and nine commercial entities, most of them large insurance companies that use it in fraud investigations, have access to the People-Find service and its ability to access Social Security numbers.
Commercial customers must provide a reason for using the service and the terms of its use are written into a contract, Thomson West said, contradicting a charge from Schumer that anyone could ''write a check'' and get the information.
There are no known examples of abuse of the Westlaw People-Find service, but it and similar services hold potential for abuse, said Jordana Beebe, spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, a privacy advocacy group.
Less than half of all identity theft victims know how their personal information was accessed, according to U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which said more than 10 million Americans were victims of identity theft last year.
A San Diego area woman told the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse recently that she was frightened by the power of the legal data services. A man she met for a date used a data service at a law office where he worked to discover not only her home address, but the names and address of her parents and her credit rating, Beebe said.
Social Security numbers can be found in public records as well, including bankruptcy filings, records of real estate purchases, tax liens, death certificates and even some divorce filings, Beebe added.
(People can get some of their information removed from private records. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has more information on this at: http://www.privacyrights.org/ar/infobrokers.htm.)
The ease with which computers can collect and disseminate personal information alarms privacy advocates, but Beebe acknowledged that law enforcement, government and reporters have legitimate needs to get public information.
''There is a very delicate balance that needs to be struck, and so far, no one's done that to date,'' she said.