Davis seeks standard IT breach notification policy

Federal agencies have been losing laptop computers, including those with personal data, without public notification and sometimes undetected by the government.

Agencies are finding out now, and disclosing the information, because House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) requested summaries of data breaches over the last several years.

As a result, the situation requires a strong governmentwide policy on public notification, including strengthening legislation he has introduced, Davis said.

The most flagrant violator among agency responses so far is the Commerce Department, which reported that 1,137 laptops had been lost, stolen or misplaced since 2001. It also is missing 46 flash or 'thumb' drives and 16 handheld computers. Of these, 672 of the missing laptops were from the Census Bureau, and 246 of those contained personally identifiable information.

'Perhaps the most shocking thing here is that the public might not have ever known of these breaches and their scope if we hadn't specifically asked for the information,' Davis said in a statement.

'I'm surprised agencies don't have this information at hand. That shows we still have a long way to go on agency data security,' he said.

The federal government spends tens of billions of dollars a year on IT, yet the reality is that the government is incapable of storing, moving and accessing information, he said.

Davis plans to pursue whatever legislative fixes are necessary to reduce the losses and, when they happen, to make sure that appropriate officials know and act on the information, and notify those potentially at risk.

The Federal Information Security Management Act guides agencies in protecting federal information, operations and assets. In Davis' annual FISMA scorecard, the federal government averages D+. Among FISMA provisions, agencies are required to report data breaches to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) within the Homeland Security Department. The Office of Management and Budget recently expanded the rule to cover all incidents that include personally identifiable information.

'We may need to update the law regarding notification of Congress, and the Government Reform Committee in particular,' he said.

Davis in July introduced H.R. 5838, the Federal Agency Data Breach Notification Act, to strengthen laws regarding disclosing incidents to the public. There is no standard policy or procedure for notifying citizens when their personal information held by the government is compromised, he said.

In the last several months, agencies have reported data breaches weeks and months after they occurred, including at the Veterans Affairs Department.

'In light of the VA breach and the subsequent delay in public notification, as well as a number of other incidents involving federal agencies, a strong governmentwide policy is required,' Davis said.

His bill would require the Office of Management and Budget to establish policies, procedures and standards for agencies to follow in the event of a data breach.

'Given these recent disclosures, I intend to revisit that bill and augment it as necessary,' he said.

In July, Davis and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) asked all cabinet-level agencies, the Office of Personnel Management and the Social Security Administration to report any 'loss or compromise of sensitive personal information held by the federal government since Jan.1, 2003.' Agencies were to deliver a summary of each incident by July 24.

To date, 13 agencies have responded, including the Social Security Administration and the Energy and Veterans Affairs departments. The Homeland Security Department has partially responded. Three agencies have not yet responded' the Treasury, Defense and Health and Human Services departments'a committee spokesman said.

Commerce said the high volume of lost equipment was unacceptable and regretted the loss of data but was optimistic that the vulnerability for data misuse was low.

'All of the equipment that was lost or stolen contained protections to prevent a breach of personal information, and we are moving to institute better management, accountability, inventory controls, 100 percent encryption and improved training,' said Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez in a statement.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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