The Internal Revenue Service is again coming under scrutiny, as an independent transparency organization found that the agency publicly posted thousands of Social Security numbers.
Public-domain group Public.Resource.org conducted an unrelated audit when the IRS called Carl Malamud, the group's founder, in June and said to disregard more than 3,000 tax returns they had sent in January because they had been improperly vetted. Upon closer inspection, 319 of the documents contained sensitive information - including at least 2,319 Social Security numbers - that the IRS should have redacted before sending.
The incident involves a database that contains tax returns from nonprofit political organizations, such as campaign committees, known as 527s. The database is "an essential tool" for the public, journalists and watchdog groups, the organization said in a statement.
"While the public posting of this database serves a vital public purpose ... the failure to remove individual Social Security numbers is an extraordinarily reckless act," the statement says. The organization determined that although there was not "extensive activity" on its website for the January documents, at least one copy of the original database had been transferred, according to the audit report.
"While the exposure was not huge, it is clear that the data was distributed," the report says.
Once the breach was discovered, the organization immediately replaced the database with a "clean" version that the IRS had sent. Malamud sent an audit report to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, IRS officials and senior White House officials on July 2, notifying them that the information was still public on the IRS database, but the IRS did not remove the offending files until the next day.
"The IRS effort to date has been unprofessional and amateur," Malamud said in a statement. "The IRS has recklessly violated the privacy of Americans and deliberately tried to keep scrutiny away from our worst charities."
Public.Resource.org also asked, "with greatly conflicted feelings," the IRS to temporarily shut down the political organization database.
"Public.Resource.Org has been working intensively to make nonprofit tax returns more readily accessible," Malamud says in the statement. "We are sad to conclude that during the course of our work, the I.R.S. has, in our opinion, misled both Public.Resource.Org and White House officials.
The IRS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.