Texas County Turns To Thomson Reuters To Protect Citizen PIN Information Within 12-Million Pages of Public Documents

Megan Wierenga Aumentum Case Studies, Case Studies Archives, Resources June 11, 2012
Wilson-Board-Fort-Bend

Entire Project Completed Within 12 Months To Give Citizens Peace-of-Mind Against Identity Theft

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The Challenge: Protect Personal Information Within 12-Million Document Pages

Fort Bend County, located in the Houston metropolitan area of southeast Texas, strives to be the most family-friendly community in the state by providing a high-quality, enriching and safe environment for county citizens. Approximately 525,000 people reside in the county, which is among the top 20 fastest growing counties in the U.S.

When the State of Texas considered making it mandatory that all counties needed to make sure that the personal information of citizens could not be accessed by the general public, it created quite a challenge for Dianne Wilson, County Clerk of Ft. Bend County.

“At first it appeared that the counties would be liable if any citizens experienced identity theft due to social security numbers, driver’s license numbers or bank account numbers being taken from a public document via the Web,” Wilson said. “But the bill that was eventually passed only required us to block-out this type of information if we received a written request from a citizen.”

But the public fury that the controversy initially stirred-up, which included many counties shutting down their Web sites while waiting for the law to be clarified, prompted Wilson to realize Ft. Bend County needed to take proactive steps beyond what the new law required. “With the technology that is available today, identity theft is becoming more prevalent,” Wilson explained. “For the benefit of our citizens, and for the peace-of-mind of our internal staff, we needed to do something to protect citizen privacy. Even if we are not liable, we would still regret it if anyone suffered a hardship due to personal information being taken from our Web site—where public records, such as property documents, are posted for the public to view freely.”

Wilson thus launched a project to research solutions that would allow Ft Bend County to redact (black out) any personal identification numbers on public records such as title insurance certificates, liens, property deeds and other land-transaction documents posted by the county. Wilson planned to redact all numbers other than the last four digits so that individuals with the same names could still be distinguished from each other. She also determined the county should redact PINs on documents going back 10 years. The project would thus require that PINs appearing on approximately 12-million pages of documents be reviewed, redacted and then verified.

“We realized this would be a massive undertaking,” Wilson said. “But we were determined to protect the privacy of our citizens.”

The Solution: Thomson Reuters Redaction Services

Given the amount of documents with PINs that needed to be redacted, Ft. Bend County could not allocate sufficient budget dollars towards internal resources to take-on the project. “Our staff operates at full bandwidth at all times,” Wilson said. “And even if we tried to handle the project on our own, it likely would have taken upwards of 10 years to complete. We wanted to address the challenge within a year if possible.”

To take on the challenge, Ft. Bend County published a public bid as all government agencies are required to do. One of the solution providers that responded was Thomson Reuters, which had worked with Ft. Bend County in the past to provide document recording, indexing and scanning solutions.

For the redaction project, Thomson Reuters offered the lowest cost, but just as important to Wilson, they also presented the strongest references, all of whom said they would select Thomson Reuters again. “Having worked with Thomson Reuters in the past, we also knew the quality of service and level of professionalism they could offer,” Wilson said. “All of these factors put Thomson Reuters head-and-shoulders above everyone else.”

Thomson Reuters recommended its Redaction Services offering, which ensures accuracy by utilizing cutting-edge technology and a team of verification specialists that ensure all data is handled properly. The service eliminates the need for government agencies like Ft. Bend County to add temporary staff to redact historical records. Thomson Reuters also ensures compliance with legislative mandates.

“The key feature of their offering that appealed to us most was the accuracy,” Wilson said. “We simply had to find every piece of data that needed to be redacted. It only takes one miss to create a major problem.”

The Deployment: Thomson Reuters Redacts 12-Million Document Pages In 12 Months

Once the project was formally launched, Thomson Reuters assigned 50 reviewers to the project that reviewed the 12-million documents after they were scanned and redacted by their Redaction Services software. The work was performed at Thomson Reuters offices with document images transferred back-and-forth with Ft. Bend County via hard drive and CD swaps as well as online data uploads. With the redaction scanning technology and the professional resources that were applied, the entire project was completed in 12 months.

“Thomson Reuters also met with us on a weekly basis to review the progress of the project so we could be sure that things stayed on schedule,” Wilson said. “They provided detailed reports that showed lisitings of all the pages on which PINs had been redacted.”

The project presented a high level of complexity since many of the older county records included content written by hand and printouts that were not as clean as documents are today. Some of the images also included copy that appeared in the margins, which can be difficult to scan properly, and Thomson Reuters had to adjust for documents with templates and formats that had changed over time. But the technology they deployed, supported by the verification of the document specialists, made sure all 12-million pages were properly redacted.

The Benefits: Citizen PIN Information Remains Safe From Identity Theft

“Before we launched the redaction project, we received about a dozen calls every month from citizens concerned about the privacy of their PINs,” Wilson said. “But since deploying the solution, those calls are very rare, and we have yet to come across a record that was not properly redacted.”

Wilson added that this type of project—given the scope of the 12 million pages that had to be reviewed for social security numbers, driver’s licenses and bank account numbers—would have been impossible for her staff to take-on internally. “Like most counties, we simply don’t have enough time with all of our day-to-day responsibilities,” Wilson said. “We also did not have the sufficient technology and physical space that would be required.”

The public’s comfort level in knowing their PIN information is safe from people who might try to do them harm is the biggest benefit according to Wilson. But she also adds it’s a comfort to her as the county clerk and to her staff knowing they are not allowing PIN information to leak out.

“It is also an impressive accomplishment to complete a project of this magnitude quickly and accurately with a reasonable budget,” Wilson added. “And even if we found a way to do the same thing internally, we probably would not have achieved as high of a success rate in terms of accuracy.”

With the redaction of historical land-transaction records completed, Ft. Bend County then took-over on its own with internal resources utilizing the Thomson Reuters records management software to redact current-day documents as they are created. “The process flows smoothly,” Wilson said. “We just scan and redact documents as they are created, and because the software is very accurate, our staff just needs to do a quick verification. Thomson Reuters saves us a lot of time compared to trying to redact documents manually.”