July 10, 2013
Taxpayers’ Social Security Numbers Posted Online By IRS
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Following a slip up that exposed the social security numbers of as many as 100,000 Americans, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was asked to remove access to a database which contains public information about nonprofit organizations.Watchdog group Public.Resource.org first noted the error when they were performing their own audit of unrelated information which had also been improperly distributed by the IRS. The group says the social security numbers that were posted to the database largely belong to donors -- although some also belong to tax return processors. These numbers were posted online for less than 24 hours and the IRS promptly shut down access once Public.Resource.org pointed out the slip up.
The social security numbers were posted to a portion of the website dedicated to nonprofit political groups known as 527s. When these groups file tax forms, the IRS posts them to the public database. This database is used by watchdog groups (such as Public.Resource.org), nonprofits, congressional staffers and journalists. According to the watchdog group, they detected these visible social security numbers on July 2 and notified the US Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration immediately. By the next day, the administration had removed public access to the site. After being offline for several days, the site is up and running again.
In a statement to the Washington Post, an IRS spokesperson explained that federal law requires them to post certain forms from 527 organizations. Furthermore, the IRS noted that it "frequently and routinely reminds organizations of the public disclosure of these forms and urges them not to include personal information, including Social Security numbers, in their public filings."
The IRS later said it was "assessing the situation and exploring available options" following the Public.Resource.org report.
The watchdog group had stronger words for the administration, however.
According to the group, the IRS notified them last month that they had sent out "improperly-vetted" information via DVD for the January release of Form 990-T. Though the IRS released this incorrect information but did not let subscribers know about this slip up, the watchdog group set out to look into how this could have happened. It completed this audit and gave the results to the Inspector General on the first of July.
"The IRS effort to date has been unprofessional and amateur," writes Carl Malamud, the founder of Public.Resource.org.
"It is time now for the administration to send a tiger team over to the IRS to help fix their information management practices. The IRS has indulged too often in bad Information Technology and this habit has become ingrained in the culture and procedures of the Service. It is time now for the IRS to admit that it needs help. That is the first step towards recovery," said Malamud.