Adoption records found on state site
Internet search turns up confidential information
By MARY ZAHN
Posted: Jan. 24, 2007
David Munro was searching a state-run court records database late last year looking for his parking citation when he stumbled across a piece of his son's confidential adoption record.
Ruth Munro, her son, Matthew, and her husband, David, were surprised to find that confidential adoption information regarding Matthew was posted online on a state court access Web site.
17,579,882cases stored on the state's Consolidated Court Automation Programs, or CCAP
1,268,178 Number of cases coded as confidential and not available for public viewing, including adoptions, juvenile records, mental health commitments, search warrants and terminations of parental rights
On The Web
You can search state criminal and civil records at wcca.wicourts.gov/index.xsl
"I was stunned," said Munro, who teaches issues related to computer security and ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. "I knew some sealed records, including ours, had been partially revealed. I had no idea what the scope was."
After a little research on the database, Munro realized that the information was just enough for people to discover they had been adopted or to possibly lead to the identification of birth parents.
State officials confirmed that they were unaware of the problem until Munro contacted them late last year. Pieces of adoption records involving about 200 families were publicly exposed on the state system for about four months, authorities said.
Jean M. Bousquet, chief information officer for the Wisconsin Consolidated Court Automation Programs, characterized the situation as an anomaly and was unaware of it ever happening in the past. She added that no specific case information on the families was revealed.
The story is a cautionary tale in a world where large amounts of personal information are routinely gathered on computers and made available to the public, Munro said.
Eleven private companies that use the state courts data to profile individuals for business background checks or for other reasons also purchased access to the database during the four months the private adoption records were exposed, authorities said. These companies generally collect only data related to evictions and criminal histories, Bousquet said.
The Internet database Munro used is commonly referred to as CCAP, which stands for Consolidated Court Automation Programs. It was implemented in 1999 to hold court records statewide and averages about 2 million to 3 million data requests a day, records show. The system is widely used by the public to check criminal and civil court proceedings.
There are 17,579,882 cases stored on the CCAP system, of which 1,268,178 are coded as confidential and not available for public viewing, records show. The latter include adoptions, juvenile records, mental health commitments, search warrants and terminations of parental rights.
Munro said he discovered the problem when he was checking CCAP to see what his students would be able to find out about him after he assigned them to use the database to look up information on themselves.
"Students get very bored if you start talking about ethics without any context," he said. "I'll say, 'Do any of you have a drinking conviction that your parents don't know about?' "
What he came across was a record that listed both him and his wife with the letter "P" after their case number. It was cross-referenced with the case of a person they had never heard of who had "A" after his case number. Munro then searched for records close to these records in the database and discovered "infant girl" in some of the cases where the name of a person was usually placed.
Most of the time first and last names were listed on the records, and Munro said he surmised that those were the names given to children by their biological parent prior to adoption. He searched the Internet for the name cross-referenced to his entry. He said it was an unusual spelling of a common last name, and he came up with six listings in Wisconsin. He figured any one of them could be his son's biological family. He didn't contact them, but he said it shows how easily privacy can be breached.
"Our son, Matthew, has known he was adopted since he's talked, so I didn't see it personally as that big a deal," Munro said. "I was more alarmed for other adopted families. What if someone in my class checks CCAP and finds out they have a half brother or half sister they didn't even know about? It could be devastating for a family. These records are sealed for a reason."
Robert Knoll, Register in Probate for Milwaukee County, said the records were a microfilm index of old adoption records uploaded into the CCAP system for storage and should have been coded differently. None of the families whose adoption records were partially exposed was contacted because CCAP fixed the problem and because only the index information was revealed, he said.
Counties are responsible for coding cases properly so the CCAP system can decipher whether the cases should be displayed on public access or not, Bousquet said. There is no way of knowing how many "hits" were made on the adoption index records during the time they were exposed, she added.
If a county mistakenly codes a confidential juvenile ordinance curfew violation as a traffic case, she said, it could end up on the public Web site and CCAP officials would not necessarily know about it. County staffs throughout the state input current data directly into the CCAP system, she added.
"We rely on the counties to verify that the data is coded correctly," she said. "It's a partnership."
Munro said he tried to use the e-mail on the CCAP site to alert authorities to the problem. When there was no response, he called a friend who is a judge and got Bousquet's phone number. Within three hours of his November call, he said, the information was removed from public view.
"There doesn't seem to be any long-term oversight," Munro said. "If I wanted to complain about this further, I would have to complain to the people I am complaining about."
However, Bousquet said, there is a CCAP steering committee made up of judges, clerks of court and others who help with policy decisions and meet at least eight times a year.
Amid concerns by some legislators that CCAP raised serious privacy issues even with records that are clearly public, an access oversight committee was convened in 2005 to review policy issues. That committee was disbanded in March 2006, authorities said.
For Matthew Munro, 23, the realization that clerical errors were responsible for revealing some of his adoption information made him "very uncomfortable." Ruth, his mother, said she placed great value on her privacy and felt affected families should have been notified of the mistake.
"I want the public to know this has happened so that they have a heads up if they had adopted a child," David Munro said. "Not only could it happen again, it could be happening right now. If I had a sealed record in the state of Wisconsin, I would go to CCAP today and see if you are on it.