Missing laptops: Loss of public confidence would doom census

Friday, September 22nd 2006, 3:30 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Elizabeth Mazur found a census taker's business card stuck inside her door last fall, she dutifully called the number and agreed to take part in a monthly survey on income and poverty.

Some questions were personal: Who did she live with? How much money did she make? Where were her parents born?

Mazur, a 29-year-old lawyer in Chicago, said she was happy to answer. But after hearing that Census Bureau workers have lost 672 laptop computers since 2001, including 246 that contained personal data, she's not sure she'd do it again.

``You hear stories about people, schemers pretending to be a bank employee,'' Mazur said. ``Knowing there have been problems (at the Census Bureau), I would be less willing to do it if somebody I didn't know called me.''

The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, this week became the latest federal agency to acknowledge losing laptop computers containing sensitive information. Overall, the department has lost or had stolen 1,137 laptops since 2001 _ the largest number of computers that any agency has publicly acknowledged losing.

All the computers containing personal information were protected by passwords or encryption technology. Still, the disclosure raises questions about the government's ability to protect sensitive information, said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

At least eight other federal agencies have reported computers with sensitive information lost, stolen or illegally accessed in recent months. The biggest case was at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had a computer containing the personal information of 26.5 million veterans and military personnel stolen. The computer was eventually recovered with no data accessed.

``The reality is, we are incapable of storing, moving and accessing information,'' said Davis, who vowed to pursue legislation to improve security. ``The American people deserve better from their government.'' Davis chairs the House Government Reform Committee, which has requested information about lost or stolen computers from all Cabinet agencies. He hopes to compile a report by next week.

Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House subcommittee on the census, said he plans to hold hearings on how the computers were lost and how to prevent losses in the future.

There is no evidence that any personal information from the Census Bureau's computers has been accessed or misused, said Ruth Cymber, the agency's director of communications. Publicly disclosing personal information from census surveys is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Census officials do not know how many people had their personal information on the lost or stolen computers, Cymber said. On average, a computer would contain information from 20 to 30 households at any given time.

Most personal information from census surveys would be insufficient to steal a person's identity, according to security experts. However, 81 of the lost computers may have contained Social Security numbers.

Among the Census Bureau computers containing personal information, 104 were stolen and 113 were not returned by former employees. The rest were lost or misplaced. Cymber said the bureau is working with state and local police to try to retrieve computers from former workers.

When possible, the Census Bureau has withheld pay from workers who did not return computers, Cymber said. Most of them were temporary hourly workers paid to gather data door to door.

Security analysts said it would take a computer expert to access a laptop protected by a password. One protected by encryption technology would be even more difficult to access.

``The casual thief likely won't know how to break them,'' said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University and the chief privacy counselor for the Clinton administration.

In the meantime, census officials are concerned about losing the public's confidence. The Census Bureau conducts about 120 surveys a year, questioning more than 3 million households about everything from their race and ethnicity to their employment status and how many bathrooms they have in their homes. Most of the questions are mandated by law. The information is used by economists, government planners, marketing companies and academic researchers.

``We cannot do our work without public confidence,'' Cymber said.

Americans are required by law to answer questions from census takers. But census officials had to go back to 1962 to find a case of someone being prosecuted.

Gary Gordon, a Utica College professor and an expert on identity fraud, said the Census Bureau will have to repair its reputation if it wants Americans to continue answering questions voluntarily.

``People are learning that they need to protect their personal identifiers and trust is big issue,'' Gordon said.

For her part, Mazur was philosophical about the possibility that some computer thief might learn how much money she made last year.

``I feel like there's so many ways that we're vulnerable, what's one more laptop being lost by the government?'' she said.