Local News

Google Ordered to Remove Personal Info Posted Online

Posted November 29, 2006 6:45 p.m. EST
Updated November 29, 2006 7:56 p.m. EST

— A judge on Wednesday ordered Google.com to remove remnants of personal information about Johnston County residents that still show up on its search engine.

Johnston County officials mistakenly posted a file with thousands of names, addresses, Social Security numbers and cell phone numbers on the county Web site. Officials said the information might have been online for as much as six weeks before it was removed.

A county resident found the information when he searched his address on Google. Within an hour of him informing county officials about it, the information was pulled off the county Web site, officials said.

But getting the information removed from Google took a court order.

"They were telling us it was going to be five business days before they could remove it. We wanted it removed as soon as possible," Johnston County Manager Rick Hester said.

Still, removing the information from the Internet doesn't mean county residents can rest easy.

"You can't guarantee that somebody who got the information before you took it offline hasn't made copies and distributed those copies to other people," said Douglas Reeves, a professor of computer science at North Carolina State University. "It's very impractical for Google to police the appearance of that information in other places."

County officials haven't determined how the personal information ended up online, but Hester said the county has made security changes to prevent it from happening again.

"I want to apologize to the people of Johnston County for this situation. It has been embarrassing, but we are committed to doing the right thing," he said.

Officials are trying to determine how many people are affected and are working to determine how many times the information was accessed.

The state Attorney General's office said Johnston County is required by law to notify anyone whose identity might have been at risk. Hester said officials plan to send out thousands of letters to local taxpayers.

"(We want) to let folks know that they need to monitor their credit reports just in case," he said.