Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Federal Probe launched into missing TSA hard drive

Probe launched into missing TSA hard drive
By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities have launched a "full-blown criminal investigation" into the disappearance of a computer drive holding personal and banking records of 100,000 Transportation Security Administration employees, agency Administrator Kip Hawley said Monday.

"We're doing a full-court press on this," Hawley told TSA employees in a conference call that USA TODAY was able to listen to.

Hawley's comments downplayed the possibility that the portable hard drive had been lost from TSA headquarters in Arlington, Va., on Thursday. The TSA had said Friday that it was "unclear" whether the device was "still within headquarters or was stolen."

Agency spokeswoman Ellen Howe acknowledged Hawley's comments and added that "nothing has been ruled out," including the possibility the hard drive was lost.

On Monday, TSA employees questioned how the drive went missing and whether it would expose the identities of the thousands of armed air marshals, who ride undercover on airplanes to thwart terrorists. Air marshals, who are TSA employees, fear what someone could do with their names, birth dates and Social Security numbers — data that were on the hard drive.

"If that information is out there, it's very easy to find out who they are," said John Adler, executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, whose members include air marshals. Adler said terrorists could use personnel information to find where air marshals live, photograph them and disseminate the photos.

Hawley said air marshals' security "was one of our first concerns" but downplayed the risk to them. The TSA said on its website that "without extensive knowledge of TSA's human resource system, it is extremely difficult to determine what positions employees on the missing hard drive have."

The TSA has not ruled out the possibility that an insider took the drive.

Aviation-security consultant Rich Roth said the data theft "shouldn't affect the air marshals at all." Terrorists who are determined to spot air marshals can simply watch passengers boarding planes early, he said.

The FBI and Secret Service have joined the investigation, which began Thursday after employees in the TSA personnel office who frequently use the hard drive found it missing.

Howe, the TSA spokeswoman, said the drive is about the size of a desk telephone.

Paul Stephens, a policy analyst at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group, questioned why a federal security agency would store sensitive information on "something that could be carried away in a briefcase" and not on a larger, less-portable device. External hard drives store data such as text files and photographs and are plugged into a computer.

Cris Soulia, a TSA screener in San Diego and a former Navy computer technician, said he was "dumbfounded" that the agency would store personnel records on a portable device.

"That's really irresponsible," Soulia said.

Howe declined to address why the records were stored on an external hard drive, saying it is "an element of an ongoing investigation."

Stephens said stealing hard drives "is a bit unusual" and usually indicates that "the purpose of the theft was to obtain the data." Many data breaches are the unintentional result of someone stealing a computer to sell it and the computer happens to hold personnel information, he said.

The clearinghouse has tracked hundreds of security breaches that exposed 154 million data records.

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