Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Computer thefts get council's attention

2 containing IDs were unsecured By SHEILA WISSNERStaff Writer(Tennessean) Officials from three Metro departments have been summoned before council to explain the circumstances surrounding the theft of two laptop computers bearing full Social Security numbers of 337,000 Metro voters. The officials have been asked to attend a 5:30 p.m. Thursday public safety committee meeting in council chambers to answer questions about the theft and data security. Meanwhile, Councilman Michael Craddock, who is chairman of the Metro Council's Public Safety Committee, and Mayor Karl Dean are posing their own questions about the break-in and security at Howard School Office Building to officials with the election commission; the General Services Department, which provides for building security; and the Information and Technology division. Among the questions: Whether the laptops were encrypted to make the data impossible for a thief to read, whether the building had any security at the time of the break-in and whether there was an alarm system in place. If the answers are no, they want to know why. One of the two laptop computers had been left unsecured after workers tested whether it could work with only the last four digits of the Social Security numbers — for better voter security. The other computer was left unsecured because it was being repaired, Metro Elections Administrator Ray Barrett said. Both were taken during a Christmas-stretch break-in at the county Election Commission offices on Second Avenue South. The security lapse caught the attention of Dean and Craddock, and has raised fears of identity theft among voters across Davidson County. "People are just beside themselves. They are just livid about this," Craddock said. It also raises fears among many that other sensitive personal data that Metro maintains on its residents could be at risk. The police report about the laptop theft said there was no security guard on duty Saturdays at the Howard School Building complex — an important Metro office facility that houses not only the county election commission but also the county clerk's office, which processes automobile titles and tags. The report also said no alarms went off during the break-in. Craddock and Dean want to find out how the theft occurred and how to keep it from happening again. They also want to review Metro's computer security policies to safeguard information that other agencies store on computers. Nashville registered voter Keith Newcomb wants the same kind of review. "It raises the question of, how secure is the information in all those various databases?" he said. Laptops were standbys The stolen laptops were to be used as standbys, taken by poll workers to early voting polling places for use in case the county's main computers malfunctioned, Barrett said. "If we didn't have the backup" and the main computers went down, the voter "would have to leave and go back later to vote'' once the computers were running again, he said. The election commission, one of several Metro agencies housed at the old Howard complex on Second Avenue South, keeps a number of laptops for such purposes. Barrett said he was trying to determine why the two stolen ones were in an unsecured area of the office, instead of in the locked room where the other laptops were stored. "That's a question I asked,'' he said. Barrett said the commission was in the process of purging full Social Security numbers from laptops when the theft occurred. He said one of the stolen laptops was being tested in advance of the Jan. 16 start of early voting for the Feb. 5 primary election. The test was to see whether a new database with just the last four digits of the Social Security numbers would function properly. Barrett said he didn't know whether the new database had overwritten the full Social Security numbers. Both laptops were password-protected, he said, but added that a smart computer user probably could break the password. He said he was particularly concerned that someone might be able to get the broken laptop running. It contains full Social Security numbers, he said. Building security is provided by Specialized Security Consultants Inc. of Mt. Juliet, a subcontractor of Wackenhut, said Bob Wieme, president of the Mt. Juliet firm. "There is an ongoing investigation,'' he said. He wouldn't comment further. Police believe the theft occurred Dec. 22 or 23, said police spokesman Don Aaron. The police report said a security officer noticed about 6 p.m. Dec. 23 that an interior roll-up door/window to the election commission offices was "raised up a little." The officer thought this was normal to accommodate electrical wiring. It wasn't until Dec. 26 that another officer found that someone had gotten in by throwing a rock through an outside window. Police have no indication that any Social Security numbers have been fraudulently used, Aaron said. The Election Commission is sending a letter to all 337,000 voters to alert them to the theft.

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