US Commerce Department loses 1,137 laptops

The U.S. Commerce Department reported that 1,137 laptops have been lost or stolen since 2001, with 249 of them containing some degree of personal data.

The department couldn’t determine whose data may have been on the machines, of which 672 belonged to the Census Bureau. It wasn’t aware of any data having being used improperly, it said Thursday.

The findings are from a Commerce Department review covering 15 agencies that use a total of 30,000 laptops. It comes as businesses and governments try to tighten their control over mobile devices after several high-profile incidents concerning the loss of sensitive data.

The Census Bureau’s laptops — used for collecting census data in the field — rarely contain data on more than 100 households, and the data can’t be accessed by the surveyors, many of whom are temporary, hourly employees. the department said.

However, the Census Bureau also lost 15 handheld computers used to gather survey data. As a result, the department is contacting 558 households. The risk of the data being misused was “extremely low,” it said, since the data is encrypted and two passwords are required for access.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which falls under the Commerce Department, lost 325 laptops, three of which had personal data. One of the laptops was stolen after a fire at one of its buildings in Seattle, Washington. The machine contained addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers for 146 employees, the department said.

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said the agency plans to strengthen accountability standards, encrypt data on all department laptops and implement two-factor authentication.

U.S. government agencies have been stung by hardware losses in recent months. In May, a laptop and external hard drive was stolen from the home of a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employee containing data on 26.5 million veterans and active-duty military personnel. The laptop was recovered, and two teenagers were arrested in June.

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