1,100-plus U.S. laptops are missing

Included among the lost are 250 from the Census Bureau, which contain data from many families.

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post

More than 1,100 laptop computers have vanished from the Commerce Department since 2001, including nearly 250 from the Census Bureau containing such personal information as names, incomes and Social Security numbers, officials said yesterday.

The disclosure by the department came in response to a request by the House Committee on Government Reform, which this summer asked 17 federal departments to detail any loss of computers holding sensitive personal information.

Of the 10 departments that have responded, the losses at Commerce are "by far the most egregious," said David Marin, staff director for the committee. He said the silence of the remaining seven departments may reflect reluctance to reveal problems of similar magnitude.

In a private briefing yesterday for three members of Congress, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez estimated that the disappearance of laptops from Census could have compromised the personal information of 6,200 households, Marin said. He did not reveal where these families were located and said the department was still trying to determine the extent of the problem.

"We don't know exactly how many computers were lost or whether personal information was compromised," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis 3d (R., Va.), who chairs the government reform committee and attended the briefing. "The secretary has assured me that getting that information is Priority No. 1, and I'm confident he'll get his arms around the problem."

Commerce is the latest federal agency to admit in recent months that it had lost laptops with sensitive personal data. In May, an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs lost a laptop containing unencrypted information on about 26.5 million people. Three months later, Veterans Affairs acknowledged that a second computer, with information on about 38,000 hospital patients in Pennsylvania, was also missing.