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State VA notifying 1.8 million about missing personal data

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM — The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday began notifying as many 1.8 million veterans and doctors that their personal and business information may be on a portable hard drive that has been missing from an Alabama hospital for nearly three weeks.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, who has been pushing for more disclosure on the missing data, questioned why it took the agency so long to begin sending out notification letters.

"I certainly understand that the VA wanted to get a handle on the facts. But it became very apparent very early on that they had a breach of security," Davis, D-Birmingham, said.

Veterans Affairs said it was moving as quickly as it could, however, and denied Davis' suggestions that the agency was dragging its feet.

"We are providing information as we learn it from an investigation," said VA spokes-man Matt Burns of Washington.

The VA said it would provide a year of free credit monitoring to anyone whose information is compromised.

The problem came less than a year after the agency was criticized for delays in revealing an even larger loss of personal information on a stolen computer.

An employee at the VA hospital in Birmingham reported Jan. 22 that a portable hard drive used to back up data from his work computer was missing. The agency notified the Office of Inspector General the next day.

The VA first publicly revealed that the drive was missing 11 days later, when it said personal information on up to 48,000 veterans may have been stolen and an investigation was continuing into the scope of the problem.

On Saturday, the VA said the missing hard drive may have contained personal information, including Social Security numbers, on about 535,000 individuals and billing information on 1.3 million doctors nationwide.

VA said it doesn't have any reason to believe anyone has misused data from the hard drive, which is also at the center of a criminal investigation.

Davis said the VA's delay in disclosing the missing data might have increased the chance that identity thieves could use the information from the missing hard drive.

"I think it has been too long," he said.

Davis said the department told him that the missing storage unit included the Social Security numbers and names of about 10,000 people, plus another 525,000 Social Security numbers. The information on doctors includes names and Medicare billing codes, he said.

Last year, a VA executive stepped down from his job and a data analyst was fired after the agency failed to immediately reveal the theft of a laptop computer and disks that contained personal information on 26.5 million veterans.

After the 2006 theft, which occurred from a VA employee's home in Maryland, investigators said private information was at risk because of lax government security controls. Officials said some information on the hard drive missing in Birmingham was not encrypted, making it easier to read.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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