SEPTEMBER 25, 2006
In the latest of many incidents of government neglect, the federal bureau that collects the most personal and confidential information about Americans has lost hundreds of computers used to store the sensitive data.
The U.S. Census Bureau, the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy, has admitted that 672 laptops containing personal information are missing. Since the agency collects private statistics such as how much money Americans earn, where they spend it and how they live and die, officials claim to honor privacy and protect confidentiality with a strong and capable work force. Unfortunately, that so-called capable workforce faltered as has been the case in various government agencies. Others that have admitted losing computers with delicate information include the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services and Transporation. The Federal Trade Commission has also lost computers with crucial data.
The Census Bureau is an operating unit of the Department of Commerce, which has reported a total of 1,137 lost computers since 2001. Agency officials say that 15 operating units, led by the Census Bureau, have lost the valuable laptops. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was second to the Census Bureau with 325 missing computers, including that of an NOAA law enforcement agent containing case file information on 146 employees and contractors.
Other Commerce Department bureaus that have lost computers in the last five years include; International Trade Administration (42), National Institute of Standards and Technology (35), Technology Administration (17) and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (9). Additionally, 15 handheld devices, 46 thumb drives and a variety of documents and materials have been lost.
Details of this neglect were only made public because several media outlets requested it through the Freedom of Information Act. The secretary of the Commerce Department, which is responsible for promoting the nation’s economic development and technological advancement, downplayed the incidents by saying that the vulnerability for data misuse is low because all of the stolen equipment contained “protections to prevent a breach.”
Perhaps Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has never heard the term computer hacker, a technological whiz that easily violates the so-called protections.
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