Remembering citizen-privacy activist BJ Ostergen

BJ Ostergen, who recently passed away, was an example of what one creative, fearless person can do in the face of government arrogance and lawbreaking.

ACLU Virginia writes on occasion of her recent death, "Using government websites, she downloaded public land records containing the social security numbers (SSNs) of legislators, clerks, and other officials with the power to address the issue.  She posted these documents on her website.  That got people’s attention.  The media began to report on the problem, giving BJ the opportunity to explain her position in newspaper articles and television and radio interviews nationwide.  Many state and local websites outside of Virginia began to redact social security numbers from public records available on line, or remove such records altogether."

In preparing an article for The National Law Journal ("Government privacy invasions") about how some charity regulators violate federal law by demanding registrants with their offices disclose SSNs, I learned about BJ and had the opportunity to interview her.

Charity regulators began posting registrations online.  I had previously told the ones who demanded filing of social security numbers, which is illegal anyway, that online disclosure jeopardized security. They continued to break the law by demanding SSNs, although they assured me that SSNs were not posted online.

BJ was not a professional activist, and was a charming and nice person who simply wanted the government to follow the law and not hurt innocent people. Good luck, right?

She began posting SSNs of public officials online only after they ignored her other efforts. She was sued by the Commonwealth of Virginia for violating law about disclosing SSNs. The court ruled that she was protected by the First Amendment.  Her actions resulted in legislative action to maintain confidentiality of SSNs, and bureaucrats began redacting SSNs before they get posted online.

BJ never wanted publicity, but she used it to make things right. She was bold, and more than too many people in government with power over our personal and private information, she knew right from wrong. We are all better off because of BJ.

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