Skip to main content
Advertising

Originally published April 10, 2014 at 6:50 PM | Page modified April 10, 2014 at 8:12 PM

  • Share:
           
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Audit: State sold computers containing personal information

Surplus computers set to be given away or sold by the state contained confidential information, such as Social Security numbers, medical records and tax forms, according to an audit released Thursday.


Seattle Times staff reporter

Reader Comments
Hide / Show comments
Would someone at ST please explain why some articles are published twice, perhaps an hour or two apart? In some cases... MORE
@Sloppy_Joe Thumbs down. Some Guv'mint workers are cleaning up Oso, and helping special needs kids, you know.... MORE
Back when I worked in defense ]in the frickin 80s, it was standard procedure for our company to not only erase hard... MORE

advertising

Washington state failed to erase Social Security numbers, medical records, tax forms and other confidential information from some surplus computers it has sold or given away, according to a state audit released Thursday.

It’s unclear how many computers went out the door with personal information. Auditors found private data on 11 computers set to be given away or sold last summer. Based on that discovery and a statistical analysis, they estimated that 9 percent of surplus computers contained sensitive information.

The state gets rid of roughly 10,000 computers each year through the surplus program, which has existed since the 1970s and nets about $4 million annually for agencies, according to a program spokeswoman.

The audit found that despite state law requiring computers to be scrubbed before going to surplus, some agency workers either were not following protocol or were being sloppy, leaving private data in places that could be accessed by people with computer knowledge.

“With the right knowledge of data retrieval, the confidential information we found could be obtained in a few minutes,” according to the audit report. “Had these computers been sold, the presence of confidential information on their hard drives posed a risk of harm to private individuals and the state.”

Michael Cockrill, the state’s chief information officer, described the audit as “precautionary,” saying there have been no reports of any information being compromised. Cockrill said the state moved to address the problems before the audit’s release. Among other actions, he said the state quarantined the identified computers, halted sales and established new rules.

All surplus computers are now going through an additional secure scrubbing program run by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Cockrill said.

Nevertheless, the audit raised questions about technology security at a time of heightened awareness of the issue.

State Auditor Troy Kelley conducted the performance audit to help assess security after seeing similar audits in other states, spokesman Thomas Shapley said.

Overall, auditors examined 177 of about 1,215 computers sent to surplus by 13 Washington state agencies last July and August.

The private data was on computers sent by the departments of Labor & Industries; Ecology; Health; and Social and Health services, according to the audit.

The first three of those agencies had procedures in place to erase data. They told auditors that workers had made mistakes, such as setting aside computers for surplus before they were scrubbed and sending some computers to surplus that would not start on the assumption that they were broken.

Spokespeople for all three agencies said they were not aware of any discipline related to the audit findings. New training was conducted as a result of the audit, they said.

The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) was not able to provide auditors with documentation of scrubbing procedures, according to the report. Neither were the departments of Transportation and Parks, or the state Senate.

Six other agencies “did not follow the recommended leading practice of verifying data on hard drives is erased or destroyed” — the departments of Ecology; Health; Labor & Industries; Fish & Wildlife; and Natural Resources, as well as the Office of the Insurance Commissioner, according to the audit.

In addition to the confidential information, auditors discovered dozens of photos of a sexual nature on a computer that had belonged to the state Department of Labor & Industries.

No discipline occurred as a result of that, either, a spokesman said.

Ben Vaught, of the Office of the Chief Information Officer, said many state agencies thanked the auditors for helping them to tighten data-security procedures. He said he hoped that local governments — and private citizens — would take the audit as a reminder to be proactive.

“End-of-life data disposal is often an overlooked part of the overall security process,” Vaught said. “This is a good reminder for all of us.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal



Want unlimited access to seattletimes.com? Subscribe now!

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

The summer is wide open.

The summer is wide open.

Follow our three-part "Washington's National Parks" series running through August 10 for an in-depth look at some of our local treasures.

Advertising

Partner Video

Advertising


Advertising
The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited seattletimes.com access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►