Nearly 100 local government entities in Texas — including police and sheriff’s departments, municipal courts, district attorney's offices and probation offices — currently purchase online access to a database that contains Texans’ employment information. That data includes Social Security numbers, places of employment and gross wages. Staffers at the Texas Workforce Commission, which maintains the database, say that allowing such access to law enforcement helps them catch "the bad guys." But some residents are concerned that routine access to sensitive, private information could easily be abused by public employees.
“There’s a false sense of security when law enforcement are engaging in this activity, because many Texans believe that law enforcement are there to protect the common good," said John Bush of Texans for Accountable Government. "Unfortunately, law enforcement are not exempt from misbehaving, acting out or even abusing their authority just because they have a badge."
Chris Calabrese, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said giving public employees access to sensitive information presents privacy concerns, because it can be hard to differentiate between legitimate uses for law enforcement and illegitimate uses, such as finding out how much a neighbor earns.
"We’ve seen law enforcement misuse databases like this in the past,” Calabrese said. “This type of information is interesting and can certainly be misused, so the question becomes, are there strong controls?”
The Tribune created this interactive map to show where the entities with access to the database are located. The workforce commission tracks the number of transactions that entities conduct within the database. Clicking on an entity on will bring up details on the number of users with access and how many transactions that entity conducted in the database in 2011. You can also use the table below to draw comparisons.
Under federal law, state and local law enforcement agencies can use the power of subpoena to get an individual’s employment information from the workforce commission. For about $1,500 a year (prices can vary by contract), local law enforcement agencies can skip that step by purchasing online access to the Texas employment database. In their contracts with the commission, the agencies must specify which employees will have access to the database, and those employees are required to undergo security training.
“It's clearly in the public interest and obviously in our authority — we’re compelled to do so," said Lisa Givens, a workforce commission spokeswoman, emphasizing that the contracts with law enforcement increase efficiency. "The program is really helpful to law enforcement in doing their job.”
The entities can use the database to help in a variety of ways, such as collecting revenue from traffic warrants, contacting witnesses or defendants in criminal investigations or checking on parolees. One agency also said the information is used to conduct background checks on prospective employees.
Some agencies ask authorized users to log why and when they accessed the database, but the workforce commission contracts do not require agencies to track employees' usage of the database. To ensure the database isn't misused, the commission's monitoring department conducts annual reviews of who is accessing the database, and onsite inspections are conducted about every three years. A workforce commission employee said the most common violation the commission encounters is police officers calling to set up a password to access the database when they aren't authorized.
Of the 9 million transactions conducted by public employees accessing the database in 2011, more than 7 million were by the child support division within the Texas attorney general’s office. The AG’s child support division uses the information to identify overdue child support payments and determine whether wages should be withheld for child support payments. The AG’s office also has a secondary contract that allows employees in their criminal investigations unit to access the employment database.
“The individuals who have access to the information are very clearly trained about the security and confidentiality provisions of this office,” said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the AG’s office.
Excluding the 2,100 employees authorized at the AG’s office, 1,368 public employees have undergone security training and are authorized to access the database. On average, city and county organizations with access have conducted 11,550 transactions each in 2011, or 781 transactions per authorized user. When the Tribune matched the transaction data with population estimates from the American Community Survey, it found that city and county organizations conducted 241 transactions per 1,000 residents in entities’ given territory.
“There’s some duplication represented in those transactions,” said Givens, adding that looking up a single Social Security number could record 100 transactions depending on the results of the search.
Some entities stood out when compared with those averages. The Pantego Municipal Court, which serves about 2,550 people, conducted nearly 23,000 transactions — 8.9 per resident — in 2011. And the Baytown Police Department, which has only one employee authorized to access the database, had the highest number of transactions per authorized user, at 4,769.
“We use it for intelligence for active criminal investigations,” said Lt. Eric Freed of the investigations division at the Baytown Police Department, adding that they do not use it to collect revenue from outstanding warrants. “If a person is employed and we’re trying to locate them for an interview, that would be a really good start to know where they are.”
But even some public employees recognize that using the employment database to contact individuals can be unsettling.
“There's something about contacting an individual at his employer and letting him know we're looking for them. It just doesn't bode well with the employer,” said Ron Hood, a Dripping Springs-based constable. He said that before his office’s access expired in 2011, it only used the database as a last resort to contact people with outstanding warrants.
|Entity Name||County or City
|Contract Terms with Texas Workforce Commission||Database Usage in 2011|
|Cost||Begin Date||End Date||Max Users||Total Transactions||Average Monthly Transactions||Transactions per User||Transactions per 1,000 of Population|
|Ferris Police Department||2052||$4,500||11/1/11||10/31/14||10||0||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|Harris County Constable, Precinct One||3950999||$1,500||10/1/11||9/30/12||10||1740||145.0||174.0||0.4|
|Denton County Criminal District Attorney||628084||$1,500||6/1/11||5/31/12||10||477||39.8||47.7||0.8|
|Harris County Attorney's Office||3950999||$4,575||10/1/09||9/30/12||20||3666||305.5||183.3||0.9|
|Harris County Constable Precinct 4||3950999||$2,100||9/1/11||8/31/12||25||4451||370.9||178.0||1.1|
|Fort Bend County||541983||$4,500||8/1/10||7/31/13||10||1756||146.3||175.6||3.2|
|Collin County CSCD||738745||$1,500||4/1/11||3/31/12||10||2614||217.8||261.4||3.5|
|Harris County Sheriff's Office||3950999||$6,000||2/1/11||1/31/14||25||17679||1473.3||707.2||4.5|
|Travis County for the Benefit of Constable, Precinct 5||979712||$1,500||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||4648||387.3||464.8||4.7|
|Brazoria County CSCD||300522||$1,500||9/1/11||8/31/12||10||1449||120.8||144.9||4.8|
|Dallas County CSCD||2321014||$4,575||11/1/09||10/31/12||5||11583||965.3||2316.6||5.0|
|Dallas County District Attorney's Office||2321014||$4,500||4/1/11||3/31/14||10||11970||997.5||1197.0||5.2|
|Conroe Police Department||53270||$4,500||11/1/11||10/31/14||10||287||23.9||28.7||5.4|
|Tarrant CountyDistrict Attorney||1743300||$6,000||9/1/10||8/31/13||25||9730||810.8||389.2||5.6|
|San Angelo Municipal Court||91385||$4,500||7/1/10||6/30/13||10||568||47.3||56.8||6.2|
|City of White Settlement||15890||$1,500||9/1/11||8/31/12||10||100||8.3||10.0||6.3|
|Mission Police Department||71760||$1,500||12/1/11||11/30/12||10||520||43.3||52.0||7.2|
|City of Fort Worth Police Department||705349||$4,500||1/1/11||12/31/13||10||5388||449.0||538.8||7.6|
|Travis County District Attorney's Office||979712||$6,000||6/1/10||5/31/13||25||7686||640.5||307.4||7.8|
|Williamson County CSCD||391715||$4,575||2/1/10||1/31/13||20||3270||272.5||163.5||8.3|
|Travis County for the Benefit of Constable, Precinct 4||979712||$1,500||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||8358||696.5||835.8||8.5|
|Montgomery County District Attorney's Office||427717||$4,575||4/1/09||3/31/12||20||3787||315.6||189.4||8.9|
|City of Missouri City||64569||$1,600||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||575||47.9||57.5||8.9|
|San Patricio County||66100||$1,500||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||630||52.5||63.0||9.5|
|La Porte Police Department||33329||$3,000||12/1/11||11/30/13||0||350||29.2||-||-|
|Lancaster Police Department||34186||$1,500||12/1/11||11/30/12||10||362||30.2||36.2||10.6|
|Howard County Sheriff's Office||34285||$4,500||8/1/10||7/31/13||10||377||31.4||37.7||11.0|
|Austin Police Department||764129||$4,500||2/1/11||1/31/14||10||8694||724.5||869.4||11.4|
|Harris County District Attorney's Office||3950999||$6,000||8/1/11||7/31/12||100||46463||3871.9||464.6||11.8|
|Bexar County Criminal District Attorney's Office||1650052||$6,000||6/1/11||5/31/14||25||19889||1657.4||795.6||12.1|
|Williamson County Sheriff's Office||391715||$1,500||10/1/11||9/30/12||10||5657||471.4||565.7||14.4|
|Grimes County Constable, PCT 1||26208||$2,250||4/1/11||9/30/12||10||510||42.5||51.0||19.5|
|Guadalupe County Sheriff's Office||122728||$4,500||12/1/10||11/30/13||10||2455||204.6||245.5||20.0|
|Lakeway Municipal Court of Record Number One||10726||$1,500||6/1/11||5/31/12||10||218||18.2||21.8||20.3|
|Midland County Constable, Precinct 4||132103||$4,575||9/1/09||8/31/12||20||2728||227.3||136.4||20.7|
|Johnson & Somervell Counties CSCD||155811||$2,000||5/1/11||8/31/12||10||3260||271.7||326.0||20.9|
|Upshur County Community Supervision and Correction||38685||$1,500||4/1/11||3/31/12||10||819||68.3||81.9||21.2|
|Kaufman County Criminal District Attorney's Office||98402||$4,575||2/1/10||1/31/13||5||2099||174.9||419.8||21.3|
|Travis County Sheriffs Office||979712||$7,575||4/1/10||3/31/14||25||21403||1783.6||856.1||21.8|
|Allen Police Department||77843||$1,500||10/1/11||9/30/12||10||1760||146.7||176.0||22.6|
|Montgomery County Sheriff's Office||427717||$3,000||10/1/10||9/30/12||10||10222||851.8||1022.2||23.9|
|City of Frisco Municipal Court||103158||$3,750||4/1/11||9/30/13||10||2468||205.7||246.8||23.9|
|City of Austin Municipal Court||764129||$4,500||6/1/11||5/31/14||10||19081||1590.1||1908.1||25.0|
|Tarrant County Sheriff's Office||1743300||$4,575||2/1/10||1/31/13||20||46771||3897.6||2338.6||26.8|
|Plano Police Department||256099||$1,500||5/1/11||4/30/12||10||7420||618.3||742.0||29.0|
|New Braunfels Police Department||54072||$4,500||1/1/12||12/31/14||0||1572||131.0||-||-|
|Williamson County Constable Precinct 2||391715||$1,500||5/1/11||4/30/12||10||11911||992.6||1191.1||30.4|
|Irving Police Department||210025||$4,575||6/1/09||5/31/12||20||6943||578.6||347.2||33.1|
|Grayson County District Attorney's Office||119111||$1,500||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||4127||343.9||412.7||34.6|
|Arlington Police Department||359410||$6,000||5/1/10||4/30/13||25||13880||1156.7||555.2||38.6|
|Bexar County Sheriff's Office||1650052||$4,575||1/1/10||12/31/13||60||67930||5660.8||1132.2||41.2|
|Ellis County and District Attorney||143502||$1,500||1/1/12||12/31/12||0||6415||534.6||-||-|
|Pasadena Police Department||147077||$1,500||10/1/11||9/30/12||0||7644||637.0||-||-|
|Williamson County Constable Precinct 1||391715||$4,575||9/1/09||8/31/12||20||20649||1720.8||1032.5||52.7|
|Williamson County Constable Precinct 3||391715||$1,500||10/1/11||9/30/12||0||20740||1728.3||-||-|
|Travis County for the benefit of Constable Precinct 3||979712||$6,000||2/1/11||1/31/14||25||55699||4641.6||2228.0||56.9|
|Williamson County Constable Precinct 4||391715||$4,500||5/1/10||4/30/13||10||24454||2037.8||2445.4||62.4|
|Baytown Police Department||70429||$4,575||7/1/09||6/30/12||1||4769||397.4||4769.0||67.7|
|San Marcos Marshal's Office||43282||$4,575||4/1/10||3/31/13||2||3060||255.0||1530.0||70.7|
|Travis County Constable Precinct 2||979712||$6,000||11/1/11||10/31/14||0||83337||6944.8||-||-|
|San Marcos Police Department||43282||$4,500||1/1/12||12/31/14||0||3737||311.4||-||-|
|Grapevine Police Department||45548||$4,575||4/1/10||3/31/13||20||4974||414.5||248.7||109.2|
|City of Jersey Village Police Department||7450||$4,500||10/1/10||9/30/13||10||941||78.4||94.1||126.3|
|City of Duncanville||37778||$4,500||6/1/11||5/31/14||10||6890||574.2||689.0||182.4|
|North Richland Hills City Marshal's Office||61956||$4,500||11/1/10||10/31/13||10||16428||1369.0||1642.8||265.2|
|DeSoto Police Department||46624||$1,500||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||12902||1075.2||1290.2||276.7|
|City of Sugar Land Municipal Court||76080||$2,000||12/1/11||11/30/12||0||22832||1902.7||-||-|
|Kemah Police Department||1952||$1,500||11/1/11||10/31/12||10||651||54.3||65.1||333.5|
|City of Baytown||70429||$1,500||6/1/11||5/31/12||10||23669||1972.4||2366.9||336.1|
|Round Rock Police Department||93092||$4,500||5/1/11||4/30/14||10||34168||2847.3||3416.8||367.0|
|Cedar Hill City Marshal's Office||42447||$4,500||6/1/11||5/31/14||10||16832||1402.7||1683.2||396.5|
|City of Canyon||13103||$1,500||7/1/11||6/30/12||10||6459||538.3||645.9||492.9|
|Westlake Marshal's Office||881||$1,500||5/1/11||4/30/12||10||460||38.3||46.0||522.1|
|City of Weimar Police Department||1957||$2,250||4/1/11||9/30/12||10||1167||97.3||116.7||596.3|
|Oak Ridge North Police Department||3061||$1,500||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||3053||254.4||305.3||997.4|
|City of Selma Police Department||4367||$4,500||6/1/10||5/31/13||10||13928||1160.7||1392.8||3189.4|
|Pantego Municipal Court||2557||$4,500||11/1/10||10/31/13||10||22950||1912.5||2295.0||8975.4|
|Office of the Attorney General||n/a||$22,680||5/1/10||4/30/13||100||356567||29713.9||3565.7||-|
|Office of the Attorney General Child Support Division- Enforcement||n/a||$150,000||9/1/07||8/31/12||2000||7052720||587726.7||3526.4||-|
|Texas Department of Public Safety||n/a||$0||9/1/10||8/31/13||200||613451||51120.9||3067.3||-|
|Texas Juvenile Justice Department||n/a||$4,500||2/1/11||1/31/14||10||8787||732.3||878.7||-|
|Travis County for the Benefit of Constable, Precinct 1||979712||$4,500||11/1/11||10/31/14||0||NEW CONTRACT FOR 2011 - NO ACCESS FOR 2011||-||-||-|
|Rockwall County||73311||$1,500||1/1/12||12/31/12||0||NEW CONTRACT - NO ACCESS YET||-||-||-|
|Caldwell County Constable, Precinct 1||37416||$1,500||1/1/12||12/31/12||0||NEW CONTRACT - NO ACCESS APPEARS YET||-||-||-|
|Cleveland Police Department||7833||$1,500||8/1/11||7/31/12||10||NO ACCESS AFTER ACCOUNT WAS SET UP||-||-||-|
|Sugar Land Police Department||76080||$1,500||2/1/12||1/31/13||0||NEW CONTRACT - NO ACCESS APPEARS YET||-||-||-|
|Longview Police Department||79229||$1,500||1/1/12||12/31/12||0||NEW CONTRACT - NO ACCESS APPEARS YET||-||-||-|
Through their monitoring efforts, TWC has not found any serious violations by law enforcement agencies accessing the database in the last 10 years.
There have been two “notable incidents” in which organizations with access were penalized in the last 10 years, according to a statement by the TWC; both were by federal government entities.
In 2004, after receiving a complaint from an individual that his ex-wife obtained a copy of his wage records, an investigation by the TWC found a law firm contracted by the U.S. Department of Justice had violated their contract rules and revoked the law firm’s access. And in 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Houston, which had assembled a drug trafficking task force that included other law enforcement agencies, allowed officers from other agencies to access the database through their contract. When TWC found out, the commission revoked access for the individuals who were not approved to access the information.
The TWC has also investigated 17 “minor” incidents in which employees looked up their own information, shared information with another government entity, set up passwords for another government entity under the same contract or emailed non-encrypted confidential information related to one individual. The TWC handled these incidents by requiring contracted entities to re-educate employees on how they are allowed to use the database.
In addition to officers potentially misusing the information for personal reasons, Bush said sharing Social Security numbers, which link a person to private information such as bank accounts, can make citizens more vulnerable to hackers or identify theft.
In 2011, for example, 3.5 million Texans had their Social Security numbers and employment information exposed on the web for over a year by the Texas Comptroller’s Office, which failed to set up adequate technological safeguards on their server after procuring the information from the TWC.
Givens assured the Tribune that type of data leak could not happen under their data sharing agreements with local law enforcement agencies, because unlike the agreement with the Comptroller, which kept the information on its server, the employment database shared with law enforcement agencies is kept on the TWC’s server and only authorized users have access to it through a web portal. Givens said the TWC uses a secure connection to protect the information from hackers.
“We’ve taken advantage of technology to continuously improve the safeguards,” said Givens.
Additional reporting contributed by Wes Ferguson, Hays Free Press.