Big brother watching: Albemarle County’s unfettered access to and retention of private income tax forms and social security numbers

| August 29, 2016 | 2 Comments

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“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”
George Orwell, 1984

In an ongoing investigation of Albemarle County’s recent taxpayer shakedown, the Schilling Show has reported ominous actions and policies of County Executive, Tom Foley, and County Finance Director, Betty Burrell:

Albemarle County’s response to a recent open records request has revealed other treacherous aspects of Burrell and Foley’s shakedown gambit: the County’s access to and data mining of residents’ sensitive tax data and personal financial information.

Questions posed by the Schilling Show and answers returned by Albemarle County’s follow [emphasis added]:

Q: To what extent does Albemarle County have access to county residents’ Federal tax return information?

A: The only access to Federal tax information by the County is through receipt of Schedules C, D, E & F and Form 2106EZ from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Albemarle County Finance Department [N.B. Answer later clarified by the county: Please note that the tax information made available to local government taxing officials and offices (Commissioners of the Revenue and Finance Departments) is from the Commonwealth of Virginia. The forms are Virginia income tax filing records, not Federal income tax records, although a copy of Federal forms may be the source document filed with Virginia tax returns. The County does not have direct access to any Federal Income Tax (IRS) reports, records, data, or information.]

Q: Is an individual’s social security number visible or accessible on these records?

A: Social security numbers are located in the top right-hand corner of the form.

Q: What departments have access to this information; Is this access limited to certain employees or employee levels within these departments?

A: Only the employees of the Revenue Administration Division – Assessments are authorized to access these forms for assessments and compliance purposes. 10 of 19 employees who work in the Revenue Administration Division of Finance have access to income tax information; the Chief of Revenue Administration, two Business Tax Auditors, and seven Assessment Unit employees. They would only access this information on a “need to know basis” for the purpose of assessing business taxes.

Q: What policies are in place that govern employee access to these tax records?

A: Finance has an Information Confidentiality and Security policy and Agreement which states that “At the beginning of employment with the Finance Department, the employee will complete and undergo all training required by the Finance Department regarding the security and safeguarding of confidential information, and sign an agreement acknowledging a clear understanding of the policy and agreeing to ensure its compliance.”

Q: What cyber security measures are in place that protect these sensitive records from hacking or unauthorized access?

A: Information regarding “cyber security measures in place that protect these sensitive records from hacking or unauthorized access” is exempt from disclosure under Virginia Code § 2.2-3705.2(3), which exempts “documentation or other information that describes the design, function, operation or access control features of any security system, whether manual or automated, which is used to control access to or use of any automated data processing or telecommunications system.”

Q: Can you please tell me for how many years in arrears is tax information accessible by Albemarle County through this system? In other words, how far back are the online records available?
Also, does Albemarle County ever duplicate this tax information, either electronically or physically, for later use?

A: The Virginia Department of Taxation keeps electronic files available to the locality for up to one year. After one year, the files can no longer be accessed by the County. As for your second question, electronic files are accessed and downloaded from the state by one of the County’s Business Tax Auditors. The files are downloaded to a secure folder and kept for three years or until audited, whichever is longer, in accordance with the Library of Virginia records retention schedule. After the retention period has expired, the files are deleted from the folder.

Albemarle County’s responses paint a disturbing picture of Big Brother data collection run amok.

Employee access to sensitive tax forms and social security numbers, and the implications thereof, are deeply concerning in their own right. But, the Albemarle County Finance Director’s propensity for hoarding and mining of residents’ annual tax returns—for virtually unlimited periods of time—is a practice which must be halted immediately.

No data is secure in today’s world, especially not at a county government level. Director Burrell and Executive Foley’s insatiable appetite for more, more, more taxes has put Albemarle County taxpayers in dire risk of critical personal data breach by nefarious parties both from within and from without.

About the Author:

Rob Schilling is founder of The Schilling Show Blog and News; host of WINA's The Schilling Show, heard weekdays from noon to 2 PM; husband; father; and community watchdog.
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2 Comments on "Big brother watching: Albemarle County’s unfettered access to and retention of private income tax forms and social security numbers"

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  1. R Walker says:

    What happens if the Schedules don’t have addresses of the properties listed? I intentionally leave the Address/City/State fields on my federal and tax returns blank. I report the income and expense information (as required by law) but NOTHING else. Let Albemarle County figure it out (BTW, I also have business licenses – I am not suggesting tax avoidance).

  2. Connie Stevens says:

    I wonder how much of OUR MONEY it’s costing US for OUR government to keep these improper tabs on us?! For the purposes of them to estimate how much they can gouge us in new taxes until we scream. Seriously, they probably have some kind of formula.

    In any case it’s clear Albemarle County has too much money and too much time on their hands. We need to starve this Big Brother beast. Remember this improper data collection next time they say they need to raise our taxes.

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