1,100 Laptops Missing From Commerce Dept.

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

More than 1,100 laptop computers have vanished from the Department of Commerce since 2001, including nearly 250 from the Census Bureau containing such personal information as names, incomes and Social Security numbers, federal officials said yesterday.

This disclosure by the department came in response to a request by the House Committee on Government Reform, which this summer asked 17 federal departments to detail any loss of computers holding sensitive personal information.

Of the 10 departments that have responded, the losses at Commerce are "by far the most egregious," said David Marin, staff director for the committee. He added that the silence of the remaining seven departments could reflect their reluctance to reveal problems of similar magnitude.

In a private briefing yesterday for three members of Congress, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez estimated that the disappearance of laptops from the Census Bureau could have compromised the personal information of about 6,200 households, Marin said. He said the department was still trying to determine the extent of the problem.

"We don't know exactly how many computers were lost or whether personal information was compromised," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who chairs the House Government Reform Committee and attended the briefing. "The secretary has assured me that getting that information is priority number one, and I'm confident he'll get his arms around the problem."

Commerce officials told the congressmen that the inventory of missing laptops had escalated rapidly in recent weeks as the department investigated the disappearances. Marin said the committee was concerned that that number could increase significantly as Commerce officials learn more about missing handheld computers, which are increasingly being used in the Census Bureau.

Commerce officials said in a statement that they knew of no instances in which information from the missing laptops had been improperly accessed, adding that all the equipment contained safeguards that would prevent a breach of personal data.

"The amount of missing computers is high, but fortunately, the vulnerability for data misuse is low," Gutierrez said in the statement.

With its disclosure, Commerce is the latest federal agency to admit in recent months that it had lost laptops with sensitive personal data. In May, an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs lost a laptop containing unencrypted information on about 26.5 million people. Three months later, Veterans Affairs acknowledged that a second computer, with information on about 38,000 hospital patients in Pennsylvania, was also missing.

The Federal Trade Commission has lost two laptops with files containing people's financial account numbers, and the Department of Agriculture announced that one of its laptops had disappeared along with personal information on about 350 employees.

Gutierrez and his staff told the congressmen that 1,137 laptops had been stolen, lost or otherwise vanished since 2001, mostly from the Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of these, 249 contained personally identifiable information, nearly all from the Census Bureau. All were password-protected, a low-level safeguard. Only 107 of the computers were fully encrypted.

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