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Social Insecurity Numbers
Federal agencies need to do a better job of protecting private information.

Monday, May 7, 2007

LATE ON FRIDAY, the Transportation Security Administration announced that an external computer hard drive loaded with sensitive and private information on 100,000 current and former staffers was missing, possibly stolen, from a secure area in the human resources department. This is getting ridiculous. When it comes to safeguarding private information from the growing identity theft industry, Uncle Sam's track record is horrendous.

Up until the TSA's major breach, the Census Bureau, the Agriculture Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were the latest agencies to blunder by revealing Social Security numbers. Tooling around on an Internet site maintained by the Census Bureau, a bored Illinois farmer did a search of her farm's name and found references to a loan application she filed with the USDA. There for all the world to see was her Social Security number. A review by the USDA found that the numbers of 38,700 farmers had been exposed on the site. Over at FEMA, the fumble was printing Social Security numbers on the outside address labels for 2,300 agency personnel who were being reappointed as disaster assistance employees. To its credit, FEMA moved quickly to correct the problem, apologize to the individuals affected and offer them credit-monitoring protection.

The TSA also has apologized to its employees and offered them credit-monitoring protection. But because this is the TSA -- the agency that employs airport screeners and air marshals -- this is not your run-of-the-mill identity theft worry. There are security issues here, which is why the TSA was right to call in the FBI and the Secret Service to investigate. This episode reminds us of last year's theft of the Department of Veterans Affairs laptop with information on 26.5 million people nestled in it. It was later returned with the information untouched. We can only hope for a similar outcome at the TSA.

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