Utah’s Not An Anomaly

At least 70 percent of identity theft starts with employees stealing personal data.

By Jamilah King Jul 23, 2010

At least 70 percent of identity theft starts with employees stealing personal data, according to a report published in 2004 by researchers at Michigan State. So while the investigation continues into two government workers in Utah accused of releasing the private information of 1,300 Latino residents as part of an anti-immigrant witch hunt, another important question is being bandied around: What happens when a crime usually described as one of "opportunity" becomes a weapon used for hostile political purposes?

Surveillance is certainly not a new phenomenon for black and brown bodies in this country, and there’s long been talk of how Internet giants like Google protect — or expose — users’ personal information. But in the case of Utah’s list, there weren’t any "users." Instead, there were hundreds of families legally accessing government services, which begs the question of how far government agencies are willing to go protect the sensitive personal information it collects, especially in times of political upheaval.

Kristen Cox, who works as Executive Director of Utah’s Workforce Services, said in a statement earlier this week that her staff is trained on how to properly use and disseminate data.

"We carefully protect the personal information that we gather, and take very seriously breaches of that public trust. The list contained inaccurate information and undermines the need to maintain confidentiality and adhere to the due process rules of our country."

But all the training in the world won’t stop someone on a mission. So far Teresa Bassett, a 15-year-verteran of the Department of Workforce Services and Department of Corrections, has been the only person unofficially identified in the scandal, while another temporary suspected worker has gone nameless. Although eight additional workers were under suspicion, Gov. Gary Herbert debunked that notion, saying that the actual process of compiling a list with such detailed information required more than your average amount of tech savvy.

Bassett has refused to comment publicly about the case, but as the Justice Department moves in to start a federal investigation, she could face up to five years a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

One worker, not publicly identified as Bassett, has already been fired, while the other still faces termination proceedings.

For many legal advocates, a criminal investigation is just one piece of the puzzle.

"The Department of Workforce Services says they’re looking at new policies, and we’re interested to find out what their protocols are for protecting people’s private information," said Karen McCreary, Executive Director of ACLU Utah.

In a press release issued last week, the ACLU pushed the privacy frame even further, saying that no matter what a person thinks of immigration, more needed to be done to regulate access to personal information held in government databases.

But that’s where it gets tricky. Each person on the list was targeted for being Latino and, presumably, undocumented. Unfortunately, there’s no way to regulate decent behavior or professionalism, and these days almost any crazy with a computer can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting crowd.

After completing its investigation on Tuesday and announcing the termination of both workers, there’s still no word from the governor’s office what, if any, policies will change moving forward.

"The truth is … I am afraid [immigration agents] will come knock on my door at night," one man with an 8-year-old son told the The Salt Lake Tribune. "I don’t feel good about this. I’m worried all the time."