The case of the routinely disappearing notebook PCs

Justice IG finds hardware inventory a low-priority task

Now you see the notebook PC, now you don't.

That's often as much as an agency knows when a PC or other portable device is missing. Many agencies have reported such losses over the years.

In fact, in recent weeks the Defense Department, IRS and Justice Department all noted lost, missing or stolen PCs. What's more, few agencies seem able to stem the tide.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said a year ago that his department would tighten controls over its equipment, but the Justice inspector general reported recently that over the past two years the department had been unable to account for more than 400 lost notebook computers and 775 missing weapons.

Last year, the IG reported the FBI had misplaced 184 notebooks over the preceding decade. At least one of them contained confidential information from a closed investigation, the bureau said.

But Justice is not alone in having trouble keeping track of its computing assets. Officials throughout government said loose oversight of inventories for desktop, notebook and handheld PCs, as well as portable devices, is nearly epidemic in some agencies. The Justice IG report noted that the department's bureaus have assigned a low priority to equipment inventory tasks.

Justice CIO Vance Hitch said tracking notebook computers is a decentralized responsibility within the department. 'At this point, we need to look at whether that is the best way to do it, and is there something we can push that should be used across the whole department,' Hitch said.

Patrice Rapalus, executive director of the Computer Security Institute in San Francisco, emphasized that it is not the equipment but the information in it that is critical.

Asking for trouble

'If organizations don't have a policy in place for properly securing laptops, as far as encrypting or protecting the data or assuring that no critical information is stored on them, then they are putting themselves in positions of jeopardy,' Rapalus said.

Although the Air Force recently found a pair of PCs that disappeared from the offices of the Central Command, in Tampa, Fla., most investigations of missing federal PCs meet with little success.

For instance, the House International Relations Committee probed State officials two years ago about the whereabouts of a missing notebook PC containing classified information. In that case, State called in FBI investigators but never found the computer.

After the latest report of notebook PC losses at Justice, the FBI announced that it would tighten its procedures for controlling sensitive property.

The bureau's plan is a three-pronged approach:
  • Enforce rigorous and regular property accounting.

  • Respond quickly to the loss of a gun or notebook PC by taking steps to boost security and enforce accountability.

  • Define and enforce individual liability for lost equipment.

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