Worker tried to hide extent of breach, report says

The Baltimore Sun

A federal employee accused of putting millions of veterans and medical providers at risk for identity theft tried to cover up the amount of information lost from a Birmingham, Ala., research facility, according to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general.

The employee, an information technology specialist who was not identified in the audit, lied to investigators about what was on an external hard drive that disappeared in January, the inspector general's report said. After reporting the loss, the worker encrypted and deleted multiple files on his computer to make the security breach appear less severe, the report said.

The hard drive was used to back up research data, including personal information on 250,000 veterans and 1.3 million medical providers, the latter of which was obtained from the Woodlawn-based Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The data included more than 250,000 Social Security numbers.

Since August 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs has required employees to encrypt sensitive data on portable devices.

But instead of purchasing encryption software, two supervisors, who were physicians who worked part time for the agency and often worked from other offices at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, ordered employees not to remove external hard drives from the building and to store them in a locked safe when they were not being used, according to the report.

In addition to the lack of encryption, the worker did not password-protect files from two of the three research projects contained on the hard drive, the report said.

The external hard drive remains missing. The worker was placed on administrative leave in February.

Hurricane center

As widely reported, Bill Proenza, the outspoken new chief of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, did not last through one storm.

Four days after half of the center's 46 employees called for Proenza's ouster, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the center's Maryland-based parent agency, replaced him.

The Orlando Sentinel's Maya Bell reported that the coup generated this reaction from the emergency management director in Charlotte County, Fla.:

"You're talking about a guy who has more than 40 years in the weather service. He didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. He just got sideways of people at the hurricane center, and they threw him under the bus. Tell me, in what other business would that happen?"

Other news

A Senate committee approved a 3.5 percent pay raise for federal workers, matching the figure approved by the House.

The Senate killed efforts this week to offer collective-bargaining rights to federal airport screeners. The language was included in a bill that would implement the remaining recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission. President Bush had threatened to veto the bill over the bargaining rights issue.

A Senate spending panel voted to withhold funding for Vice President Dick Cheney's office until it complies with national security disclosure rules. Cheney is refusing to turn over data on how much material his office classifies and declassifies to the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives in Washington.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The writer can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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