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NASA breach update: Stolen laptop had data on 10,000 users

Breached unencrypted laptop puts personal data of NASA employees and contractors at risk, spokesman says

Personally identifiable information of "at least" 10,000 NASA employees and contractors remains at risk of compromise following last month's theft of an agency laptop, a spokesman told Computerworld via email Thursday.

Agency employees had been told of the October 31 theft of a laptop containing the personal data from a locked car in an email message Tuesday from Richard Keegan Jr., associate deputy administrator at NASA.

In the email, Keegan told employees that the stolen laptop contained sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) on a large number of NASA employees, contractors and others. Unspecified NASA documents were also stolen from the car, he added.

"Although the laptop was password protected, it did not have whole disk encryption software, which means the information on the laptop could be accessible to unauthorized individuals," Keegan warned employees in the email.

Responding to questions from Computerworld today, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel acknowledged that agency waited nearly two weeks to publicly disclose the breach. He said that in the interim, NASA was working with law enforcement personnel to recover the laptop, and was working to determine exactly whose personal data was stored on it.

"NASA immediately began working with local law enforcement after the laptop was stolen, with the goal of recovering the computer and protecting the sensitive data," Beutel said in the agency's first public update since disclosing the theft to employees. "At the same time, NASA IT specialists and security officials began performing an exhaustive automated and manual analysis of the data to make sure everyone with information on the stolen laptop is notified."

The agency is currently in the process of notifying the victims of the breach, Beutel added.

The theft prompted questions about why personal data is stored on a laptop and why it wasn't encrypted.

The incident prompted an immediate agency-wide initiative to implement full disk encryption on all NASA laptops by Dec. 21, starting with those carried by teleworking employees.

Beutel said the laptop was stolen from a teleworking employee whose job responsibilities included reviewing personally identifiable information.

NASA does have rules stating that all individual files with PII should be encrypted, Beutel said.

However, he added, "The stolen computer was password protected, but some of the specific files were not encrypted as required by NASA policy. The hard drive also had not yet received the whole disk encryption software as part of the ongoing agency-wide effort."

Until all agency laptops are fully encrypted, NASA telecommuters must use encrypted loaner systems, Beutel said.

"Employees are being directed to review the information contained on their computers to ensure all sensitive information is appropriately encrypted at the file level, and to purge all unneeded sensitive files," he said.

The compromise isn't surprising considering that NASA has the lowest portable device encryption rate among all federal agencies, said John Pescatore, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

According to a report released in March by the White House Office of Management and Budget, only 41% of NASA-owned portable devices meet the encryption requirements of the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), Pescatore said.

NASA's effort fall far behind other agencies, he said, noting that 83% of all federal government laptops run encryption tools.

Pescatore noted that NASA is likely hurt because it's made up of multiple separate fiefdoms.

Each of the agency's labs has separate IT operations with their own standards, he said. "That has complicated NASA's ability to drive a enterprise security solution. It is probably the biggest reason why NASA is consistently" behind other agencies in security grades, he said.

The mandate to encrypt sensitive data on federal systems stems from a 2006 incident in which a laptop computer and hard disk belonging to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was stolen from the home of a VA data analyst.

The stolen equipment, later recovered by the FBI, contained unencrypted personal data belonging to over 26.5 million active military duty personnel and veterans.

Ironically, more than six years after the incident, the VA encryption rate ranks third from the bottom among federal agencies, Pescatore added.

Considering the VA's record, NASA's encryption problems shouldn't be a surprise, added Richard Stiennon principal at IT-Harvest.

"No surprise at all. Employees will always squirrel away data. Trunks will always been broken into. Laptops will always be targets for theft," Stiennon said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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