How Does Government Lose So Many Laptops?

by on September 22, 2006 · 8 comments

Honestly, I don’t get it. How in the world does government lose so many laptop computers? I don’t know if you heard this yesterday but Sonoma County, CA authorities reported that they had lost one-time JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Karr’s laptop, which supposedly contains evidence of child pornography that could have been used to help prosecute him. In other words, we basically bought this freak a free plane ride back from Thailand and then gave him a big “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Brilliant. How in the world do you lose the laptop of the guy who has been all over the news for the past month?

But wait, there’s more missing laptop news. In response to an inquiry from the House Committee on Government Reform, 17 federal agencies where asked to report any loss of computers holding sensitive personal information. The results, revealed yesterday, are staggering. According to Alan Sipress of The Washington Post: “More than 1,100 laptop computers have vanished from the Department of Commerce since 2001, including nearly 250 from the Census Bureau containing such personal information as names, incomes and Social Security numbers…” The Census Bureau’s lost laptops alone could have compromised the personal information of about 6,200 households. Apparently, according to MSNBC, “Fifteen handheld devices used to record survey data for testing processes in preparation for the 2010 Census also were lost, the [Census] department said.” (And you thought that the Census was accurate!) Other government departments reporting lost computers with personal information include the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services and Transportation and the Federal Trade Commission.

Of course, all this comes on top of the lost laptop scandal over at the Department of Veterans Affairs this summer. One lost laptop contained unencrypted information on about 26.5 million people and another had information on about 38,000 hospital patients. And in August, the Department of Transportation revealed that a laptop containing roughly 133,000 drivers’ and pilots’ records (including Social Security numbers) had been stolen.

I honestly don’t understand how are government agencies and officials losing all these laptops but next time they tell us that we can trust them with personal information and other sensitive things I hope we all remember these incidents. This is outrageous.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Presumably because everyone loses laptops, and the government are the only people who talk about it in public. I’ve never seen any research on the issue, but I know that we lost them regularly at some of my old places of employment (I certainly lost one myself with fairly confidential company information on it), and I once attended an internet law conference at Harvard where Charlie Nesson practically caused a heart attack by asking corporate counsel who were present what would happen if their CEO’s laptop were lost. I got the sense it was not merely hypothetical for some people.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Presumably because everyone loses laptops, and the government are the only people who talk about it in public. I’ve never seen any research on the issue, but I know that we lost them regularly at some of my old places of employment (I certainly lost one myself with fairly confidential company information on it), and I once attended an internet law conference at Harvard where Charlie Nesson practically caused a heart attack by asking corporate counsel who were present what would happen if their CEO’s laptop were lost. I got the sense it was not merely hypothetical for some people.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    Laptops are a common target of thieves, and it’s also common for employees departing on bad terms to not return them (unless there are severance payments contingent on return of equipment and information).

    Encryption and remote delete capability are growing in importance.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    Laptops are a common target of thieves, and it’s also common for employees departing on bad terms to not return them (unless there are severance payments contingent on return of equipment and information).

    Encryption and remote delete capability are growing in importance.

  • http://www.withoutbound.net/blog/ Amanda

    When I was a federal employee, we “lost” several laptops that (to the best of my knowledge) never left their designated service.

    What happened is that every now and then, someone would decide that we needed a better system for tracking equipment. So they’d roll out a database that didn’t work very well and give contradictory instructions about who was supposed to fill it out. The people who were supposed to use it didn’t always have access, and compliance wasn’t that great anyway because it was a pain in the ass.

    So fairly frequently, a piece of equipment would get entered into the database when it entered our office, and not checked out of the database when it left (even though it was going where it was supposed to, not to somebody’s eBay shop or anything), whether because someone helpfully checked it in without bothering to ascertain who it belonged to, or the person who checked it in left and the new person didn’t have access to the database, or whatever.

    Eventually there would be an audit and a dozen things that the database said were in our office, wouldn’t be there. Presto, “lost” equipment.

    While obviously some government employees are losing or stealing laptops, when I read stories about how audits turned up tens or hundreds of missing laptops, I tend to assume that, like my experience, it’s an artifact of a crappy tracking system.

  • http://www.withoutbound.net/blog/ Amanda

    When I was a federal employee, we “lost” several laptops that (to the best of my knowledge) never left their designated service.

    What happened is that every now and then, someone would decide that we needed a better system for tracking equipment. So they’d roll out a database that didn’t work very well and give contradictory instructions about who was supposed to fill it out. The people who were supposed to use it didn’t always have access, and compliance wasn’t that great anyway because it was a pain in the ass.

    So fairly frequently, a piece of equipment would get entered into the database when it entered our office, and not checked out of the database when it left (even though it was going where it was supposed to, not to somebody’s eBay shop or anything), whether because someone helpfully checked it in without bothering to ascertain who it belonged to, or the person who checked it in left and the new person didn’t have access to the database, or whatever.

    Eventually there would be an audit and a dozen things that the database said were in our office, wouldn’t be there. Presto, “lost” equipment.

    While obviously some government employees are losing or stealing laptops, when I read stories about how audits turned up tens or hundreds of missing laptops, I tend to assume that, like my experience, it’s an artifact of a crappy tracking system.

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