California loses personal info for 700,000...on microfiche

Digital systems and hackable databases are not the only potential sources of data breaches.

California’s In-Home Supportive Services program recently suffered a breach the old-fashioned way, losing names, Social Security numbers and state identification numbers for 700,000 home care workers and recipients that were stored on microfiche. And they were lost in the postal mail, when a package carrying the microfiche was damaged. 

"While we continue to investigate, at this time we can't confirm whether the information was damaged, lost or stolen," said an internal government e-mail, reported the Los Angeles Times.

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Microfiche, a type of microform, is a document preservation method that uses photographic methods to reduce documents to about 1/25th of the original document size. Microphotographic methods were originally developed in 1839; the advent of the modern computer has decreased the use of microforms, although institutions such as libraries, newspapers, law firms, governments and genealogists still use the technology.

Users need a microfilm machine to magnify the images to read the documents, although they can also use Adobe Acrobat to make PDFs of the microfiche pages one they’re called up, according to a wiki page at the College of Wooster, which is among the places still using microfiche.

The microfiche missing in California contained payroll data for 375,000 workers in the state’s In-Home Supportive Services from October through December 2011 and state identification numbers for 326,000 home care recipients. Hewlett-Pakard, which handles the payroll data for workers, mailed it via the U.S. Postal Service on April 26, and it arrived at the agency’s office in Riverside, Calif., May 1. According to a state website, there was a weeklong delay before the state was notified of the breach.

Oscar Ramirez, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, said the state has opened an internal investigation and notified law enforcement, the Times reported. Officials are reviewing policies to prevent future problems, and notices will be sent to everyone who may be affected.

"We're going to look at this and get to the bottom of it," Ramirez said. He attributed the delay in notification to due diligence by workers checking that the information could have been compromised.

Advocates and union officials were concerned by the storage and transportation method of the personal data.

"It's hard for us to believe that in one of the largest states in the union, we're using such an antiquated system," said Steve Mehlman, a spokesman for a labor union representing 65,000 home care workers, reported the newspaper. "It clearly needs to be modified."

Although many can’t remember the last time they used microfiche, it remains one of the safest, most reliable and inexpensive methods of keeping records. It has a projected shelf life of up to 500 years, is virtually indestructible, and requires no software to decode the data. Disadvantages of the technology include poor reproduction of photographic illustrations, limited availability of machines to print records, and difficulty in using and viewing documents.

Today, most documents are stored in digital formats, such as PDFs and JPEGs, which have much higher copying fidelity, are cheaper to save in color, and can be indexed and easily searched. Microforms can be scanned and converted to digital format.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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