Friday, September 22, 2006

Commerce Department loses 1,137 laptops

Yahoo! News
Commerce Department loses 1,137 laptops
By DOUGLASS K. DANIEL, Associated Press Writer

The Commerce Department has lost 1,137 laptop computers since 2001, most of them assigned to the Census Bureau, officials said Thursday night. No personal information has been known to have been improperly used.

The number of people affected could not be determined, officials said, in what was the latest in a series of data losses at government agencies that have raised concerns about identity theft.

"All of the equipment that was lost or stolen contained protections to prevent a breach of personal information," Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said in a statement. "The amount of missing computers is high, but fortunately, the vulnerability for data misuse is low."

The review was prompted by a request for information by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform. In addition, a media inquiry — the department would not identify the source — came via a Freedom of Information Act filing, Commerce spokesman Richard Mills said in an interview.

The Census Bureau, the main collector of information about Americans, lost 672 computers, the Commerce Department said in a statement. Of those, 246 contained some personal data.

More than 30,000 laptops were used within the department's 15 operating unit since 2001, the department said, and a total of 1,137 were stolen or missing.

Census data collected during survey periods were downloaded each day and removed from the laptops at the end of the survey periods, making impossible an estimate of how much personal information may have been on the computers, Mills said.

Fifteen handheld devices used to record survey data for testing processes in preparation for the 2010 Census also were lost, the department said. The department was in the process of contacting the 558 households with data recorded on the missing devices, although because of encryption technology, the risk of data misuse was considered low, it said.

A half-dozen other federal agencies or departments have reported data thefts and security breaches involving personal information in the last six months.

The Veterans Affairs Department suffered the biggest loss with the theft in May of a laptop and external drive containing information for 26.5 million veterans and active-duty troops. Burglars stole the equipment from the home of a Veterans Affairs employee, but the computer was later recovered and showed no signs of having been accessed for the personal data.

Other government departments reporting the loss of computers with personal information include the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services and Transportation. The Federal Trade Commission also has lost laptops with sensitive data.

Census Bureau data collectors ask Americans the most personal questions about their lives, from how much money they earn and the value of their homes to their ages and their number of children. That information is used by governments, academic researchers and businesses, among others, to discover what Americans are doing in their lives. Privacy and confidentiality are guaranteed by law.

Thousands of Census field representatives — many of them temporary, hourly employees — use laptop computers to compile survey data. The department said half the laptops containing personal information were stolen, often from employees' vehicles, and 113 were not returned.

Second only to the Census Bureau in missing laptops at the Commerce Department was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It reported 325 missing computers, three of them containing personal data.

Among those stolen was one used by a NOAA law enforcement agent and containing some case file information. In July, a laptop containing Social Security numbers and other information on 146 employees and contractors was reported stolen after a fire in a NOAA facility in Seattle, the department said.

Gutierrez said the department was taking steps to protect against further missing laptops or potential breaches of personal identity data. Among them were inventory reforms, including creating a database for all departmental property, and "raising employee accountability standards."

"This review process has clearly pointed out the flaws in the department's inventory and accountability efforts going back many years," Gutierrez said. "We are viewing this process with the spirit of actively rooting out the problems and addressing them immediately."


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