Privacy Rules

Privacy Rules - 11.21.08

Jeff: The state of Ohio has plenty of information on all of us. We file tax returns, apply for government benefits or work for the state. How safe are we that curious government workers won't access our private information and what can we do about it? Here to talk about these issues is attorney Michael Solomon.

Jeff: What information does the state have and how safe is it?

Mike: We have to file all sorts of information that is not public with the state. The most obvious is our tax return information. But there is other information that you might file with the state for student loans, unemployment, and public assistance. There is an Ohio law that states personal information should only be used by the state when needed for their regulatory job.

This issue became a big deal when Joe the plumber asked some tough questions of Obama and found that he was suddenly having his state records reviewed including his child support obligations, his unemployment taxes, and any requests for public assistance. The Ohio Inspector General is investigating to see if a violation of Ohio law occurred.

There does not seem to be a big risk to the state or employees for violating privacy. I am not sure it is a violation of the law to look at the records. The law was designed to punish state employees if the information is disclosed.

Jeff: So there is no way for individuals to stop government employees from reviewing their records?

Mike: Right now the state law does not seem to address that. The few cases that I found on the issue dealt with government disclosure of private information and it was very hard for the individual to win in court. The courts have ruled that the county and the person who wrongly disclosed the info are not liable unless they violated the law with the intent to harm you.

However, several state legislators are preparing legislation to protect your information. The law probably will impose penalties to stop government employees from improperly using government databases.

Jeff: What about the Federal government? They have even more information on people.

Mike: You're right. For example, the IRS has specific laws that make it a violation of law to disclose any of our tax information or even snoop and look at your tax return out of curiosity. This law is called the Taxpayer Browsing Protection Act. For example, the IRS recently charged five employees for snooping by looking at other people's tax returns. The IRS uses some sort of computer software to see if employees are snooping. Maybe Ohio can do the same.

Jeff: Thank you.