Hanover woman's privacy fight resumes in public

By Andy Jenks - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A Hanover woman's fight over privacy went public today in federal appeals court. At issue, how easy it is for would-be crooks to find your social security number online.

B.J. Ostergren believes she's being censored, when the state tries to stop her from putting social security numbers on her Virginia Watchdog web site (www.thevirginiawatchdog.com). But Ostergren says, it's not her fault.

"It's not just me that's enabled identity theft," Ostergren said.

Since 2002, Ostergren has been in a fight over privacy. She takes public documents, like the land records and divorce papers of elected leaders, and posts them online. Papers that often include very sensitive information. So the state and the ACLU (on Ostergren's behalf) took the case to federal court.

What's ironic is that Ostergren is a privacy advocate. She doesn't want this information in public. But she figures posting the numbers of public officials online, is the best way to persuade them to change the laws.

"I tried being really nice. You know, the nice little old lady. And no one seemed to listen to me at the  General Assembly, and so I had to come up with a better idea," Ostergren said.

Ostergren's ACLU attorney argued that at the very least, governments must be more aggressive in protecting personal information that appears on public records.

"I think that it was clear that the judges had a very good understanding of the facts of the case and the  law, and I'm fairly optimistic about the outcome," said Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU.

An attorney for the state argued that what Ostergren is doing is "harmful" and "gratuitous". Ostergren would argue she's only trying to persuade lawmakers to make a change.

"This is a major case. Hopefully all of my work for the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States will end up being something that I can put on my tombstone," she said.

Ostergren's case has already been upheld by a lower court. A three judge panel at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments today for about 45 minutes. A decision whether to permit Ostergren to continue posting the information is not expected for several months.

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