Census Bureau loses hundreds of laptops
By DOUGLASS K. DANIEL, Associated Press Writer
The Census Bureau collects the most personal information about Americans, from how much money they earn and where they spend it to how they live and die. It's all confidential — as long as no one steals it.
Lost or stolen from the Census Bureau since 2003 are 217 laptop computers, 46 portable data storage devices and 15 handheld devices used by survey takers.
Although the number of people affected isn't known, the Commerce Department reports that passwords, encryptions and other safeguards were in place. Nothing so far indicates a misuse of any information.
"The department takes very seriously these high instances of missing laptops, as well as potential breaches of personal identity data," Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said Thursday in response to an internal review of Commerce Department computers.
"All of the equipment that was lost or stolen contained protections to prevent a breach of personal information," he said in a statement. "The amount of missing computers is high, but fortunately, the vulnerability for data misuse is low."
Several other government departments in recent months also have acknowledged the loss of laptop computers containing personal information, in some instances for millions of people.
A request by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, prompted the Commerce Department review. In addition, a media inquiry — the department would not identify the source — came via a Freedom of Information Act filing, Commerce spokesman Richard Mills said in an interview.
Commerce found that since 2001 the department's 15 operating units had lost track of 1,137 laptop computers. Most, 672, belonged to the Census Bureau. Of those, 246 contained personal information.
Thousands of Census field representatives — many of them temporary, hourly employees — use laptop computers to compile survey data. The department said half of the laptops containing personal information were stolen, often from employees' vehicles, and 113 were not returned.
Census data collected during survey periods were downloaded each day and removed from the laptops at the end of the survey periods, making it impossible to estimate how much personal information may have been on the computers, Mills said.
The department was in the process of contacting the 558 households with data recorded on the missing handheld devices, although the risk of data misuse was considered low, it said.
Among government departments recently reporting data thefts and security breaches, the Veterans Affairs Department suffered the biggest loss with the theft in May of a laptop and external drive containing information for 26.5 million veterans and active-duty troops. Burglars stole the equipment from the home of a Veterans Affairs employee, but the computer was recovered and showed no signs of having been accessed for the personal data.
Other departments reporting the loss of computers with personal information include the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Transportation. The Federal Trade Commission also has lost laptops with sensitive data.
Second only to the Census Bureau in missing laptops at the Commerce Department was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It reported 325 missing computers, three of them containing personal data.
Among those stolen was one used by a NOAA law enforcement agent and containing some case file information. In July, a laptop containing Social Security numbers and other information on 146 employees and contractors was reported stolen after a fire in a NOAA facility in Seattle, the department said.
Gutierrez said the department was taking steps to protect against further missing laptops or potential breaches of personal identity data. Among them were inventory reforms, including creating a database for all departmental property, and "raising employee accountability standards."
"This review process has clearly pointed out the flaws in the department's inventory and accountability efforts going back many years," Gutierrez said. "We are viewing this process with the spirit of actively rooting out the problems and addressing them immediately."