By Gregg Keizer
Oct 18, 2006
Federal agencies not only regularly lose personal identity data, but
don't even always know what they've lost or how many Americans are
affected, a recently-released House report claimed.
According to the report issued by the House Government Reform Committee,
which is chaired by Tom Davis (R-Va.), all 19 federal departments and
agencies from which data was requested had lost or compromised personal
information in the three-and-a-half years since January 2003. Some of
the breaches were losses, others were the result of theft.
In August 2006, for example, a Department of Defense laptop that
contained personal information on 30,000 Navy applicants and prospects
fell of a motorcycle driven by a recruiter. "The recruiter returned to
the scene and was told by a road side worker that a car had stopped and
picked up the bag," the report said.
Davis's report was prompted by the May theft of a Veterans Affairs
laptop and external hard drive that had the personal information of some
26.5 million veterans and active duty military personnel. The hardware
was recovered about two months later; an FBI analysis concluded that
none of the confidential information had been accessed on the notebook
"I commend Davis for asking agencies to come forward with this
information," said Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security
Industry Alliance (CSIA), an industry advocacy group that counts Citrix,
McAfee, RSA, and Symantec as members. "It was a necessary step and a
The Davis report concluded that data loss is a government-wide problem.
"This is not restricted to the Department of Veteran Affairs or any
other single agency," the report stated. More troublesome, however, was
the fact that in many cases, agencies "do not know what information has
been lost or how many individuals could be impacted."
"That's not surprising," said Kurtz. "But it does underscore the gravity
of the situation. Government is simply not giving this the attention it
Although Congress pondered several data breach bills in the
just-concluded session, none were passed. Kurtz, who in the past has
been critical of the low priority the issue was given, continued to
hammer at legislators.
"People's sensitive information must be secured across federal agencies.
Users are confused. They hear from the private sector, such as brokerage
houses, that their information is secure, but then find out it's not
secure in other places, like the government. There needs to be a set of
Still, Kurtz hasn't given up on the idea of national data breach and
notification bill passing. "If I was a betting man, I'll take the bet
[that Congress will pass something next session]. But that's because
it's two years we're talking about."
In fact, Congress came close to putting something on the President's
desk in the 190th Congress. "This was in the top 10, but not in the top
5," Kurtz said. "There is a recognition and concern that this is a real
problem. But it will take a lot of work."
That shouldn't bowl over anyone who has followed the federal
government's abysmal record in IT security. In the most recent security
report card issued by Congress, the government as a whole pulled a
dismal "D+". Eight of the 24 departments and agencies graded were given
"There's definitely a connection between the grades and data losses,"
The House report can be downloaded from here as a 15-page PDF file.
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