The Kansas Secretary of State’s office took a trove of public records offline Thursday after a technology website discovered that they reveal partial Social Security numbers for potentially thousands of state officials.
Gizmodo reported that the last four digits of those Social Security numbers appeared in scores of records. Those forms must be submitted by legislators, state officers, people appointed to a range of councils and commissions — and high-ranking office holders such Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
His office, in turn, said state law demands that the records be available to the public.
When a person’s name and those bits of their Social Security number are connected, they can be considered “personally identifiable information.” The use of that combination is illegal under some state and federal laws and might be used for identity theft.
The information — names matched with partial numbers — is included in “statements of substantial interest” required of a wide range of people elected or appointed to state office or high-ranking agency jobs. The forms are intended to show financial interests of the public official or their spouse and can help reveal potential conflicts of interest.
Government transparency advocates have pushed heavily in recent years for more public records to be displayed online. That’s made investigation by journalists and the general public easier, and made uncovering some information possible in ways that weren’t practical before widespread internet access.
But Gizmodo was highly critical of Kobach for putting the information online. The website has a reputation for reliable reporting, often delivered with biting, even flippant, commentary.
“Putting these statements of substantial interest online without redacting the [numbers] is beyond reckless,” its story said. “It’s stupid.”
Kobach, the chief record keeper for the state and its top election official, is running for the Republican nomination for governor. He’s carved out a national profile as an advocate for tougher immigration policy and as a crusader against voter fraud.
Kansas, through Kobach’s office, has become a clearinghouse for the Crosscheck program that tries to identify voters registered in multiple states. Concerns over earlier handling of voter data submitted to Crosscheck have prompted some states to delay sharing information with Kansas until cybersecurity is tightened.
In a statement to Gizmodo, Kobach’s office said the Kansas Ethics Commissions requires the collection of the information and that the records be publicly available. The statement said Kobach “does not believe that the last four of a person’s social security number should be part of this publicly available information” but that state law requires the secretary of state to make it publicly available.
The information was pulled from the secretary of state’s website. But, to comply with the law, Kobach’s office said the records will still be available to request in person.
“Secretary Kobach takes security measures very seriously,” his office said in the statement, “and is looking for a solution that would allow this sensitive information to be redacted, while still following the rule of law.”
The story created an opening for other candidates for governor to attack Kobach. In a news release, Republican candidate Jim Barnett said the handling of the information “only underscores the incompetence of a politician. … He should, at a minimum, know how to protect [sensitive information] from personal ID data miners.”
Gizmodo said the state website revealed more than 106,800 records, but that long-term employees have multiple files.