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VA Reassures Veterans on Stolen Personal Data


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It's the largest known theft of Social Security data in history. A computer from the Department of Veterans' Affairs has been stolen. It includes a disc containing personal information on more than 26 million former service members. Many vets who tried to call the VA today about the matter got only busy signals. Critics of the agency say it was just a matter of time before something like this happened. The VA has long been criticized for lax information security.

NPR's John Hendren reports.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Angry veterans who did get through to the Veterans' Affairs Administration today were greeted with this message -

Unidentified Woman: If you are calling about the recent theft of Veterans' Affairs electronic data, please listen to the following message. We believe this theft was a random act, and not a deliberate attempt to steal information about veterans.

HENDREN: VA Secretary Jim Nicholson says it all started when an employee who was not authorized to take home a laptop containing millions of veterans' names, along with their addresses and Social Security numbers, reported the computer and its disc stolen from his home.

Mr. JIM NICHOLSON (Secretary, Veterans' Affairs): We do not suspect at all any ulterior motive. He was, he took this home to work with it on a project that he was working on in clear violation of policies and procedures.

HENDREN: Bob Wallace is Executive Director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. He can't believe a single employee could lug home so much information or that the agency didn't do more to prevent it.

Mr. BOB WALLACE (Executive Director, Veterans of Foreign Wars): It is unbelievable to me that there is such a lack of security on information of this importance. This amount of information could affect veterans for mortgages, could affect veterans for credit cards, could affect veterans' credit ratings. And so many of them have received wounds and what have you, disabilities, as a result of their service to protect this country, and now here's the agency that's supposed to protect them allowing this to happen.

HENDREN: The VFW has written a letter urging Congress to hold hearings into the VA's handling of information and to require the VA to pay for any harm to vets. The VA's Nicholson says the agency has no reason to believe that whoever stole the computer knew what was inside. But if the thief or thieves didn't know then, they almost certainly do now.

Mr. ANDY SERWIN (Attoryney Foley & Lardner): You run the risk of alerting the thief, if it wasn't something targeted at the data, that they now have, you know, 20 million or 30 million names and Social Security numbers.

HENDREN: Andy Serwin is a partner with the law firm of Foley & Lardner. He advises media companies on privacy and has written a book on information security.

Mr. SERWIN: The worst-case scenario is someone takes your identity and starts committing crimes in your name. And beyond putting charges on your credit card, opens credit and does it in a way that your credit is impacted for a significant period of time.

HENDREN: Worse still, perhaps, is that the computer contained the disability ratings of wounded vets. Some fear that data, on mental health disorders, for instance, could leave vets vulnerable to blackmail and job discrimination. Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin is a vocal critic of the agency. He says the theft is part of a wider management problem at the VA.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): This was clearly a Katrina moment at the Veterans Administration. They've been warned all along the way, not only about the way they treat information on veterans, but the way they're treating veterans. We've had some very bad experiences in many states, like Illinois, where veterans seeking disability payments have been consistently shortchanged over decades.

HENDREN: There have been other management problems. Last year 260,000 vets were unable to sign up for services and audits have criticized the agency for using misleading accounting. In a November report, VA Inspector General Jon Wooditch wrote, in his words, "VA has not been able to effectively address its significant information security vulnerabilities."

All the same, vets whose information was stolen could have a hard time suing Uncle Sam. Most government agencies are immune from such lawsuits. A VA spokesman did not return calls for further comment.

John Hendren, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Hendren
John Hendren began covering the Pentagon for NPR in November 2005. His reports can be heard throughout NPR News programming and newscasts.