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NASA breach update: Stolen laptop had data on 10,000 users

November 15, 2012 03:32 PM ET

The compromise isn't surprising considering that NASA has the lowest portable device encryption rate among all federal agencies, said John Pescatore, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

According to a report released in March by the White House Office of Management and Budget, only 41% of NASA-owned portable devices meet the encryption requirements of the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), Pescatore said.

NASA's effort fall far behind other agencies, he said, noting that 83% of all federal government laptops run encryption tools.

Pescatore noted that NASA is likely hurt because it's made up of multiple separate fiefdoms.

Each of the agency's labs has separate IT operations with their own standards, he said. "That has complicated NASA's ability to drive a enterprise security solution. It is probably the biggest reason why NASA is consistently" behind other agencies in security grades, he said.

The mandate to encrypt sensitive data on federal systems stems from a 2006 incident in which a laptop computer and hard disk belonging to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was stolen from the home of a VA data analyst.

The stolen equipment, later recovered by the FBI, contained unencrypted personal data belonging to over 26.5 million active military duty personnel and veterans.

Ironically, more than six years after the incident, the VA encryption rate ranks third from the bottom among federal agencies, Pescatore added.

Considering the VA's record, NASA's encryption problems shouldn't be a surprise, added Richard Stiennon principal at IT-Harvest.

"No surprise at all. Employees will always squirrel away data. Trunks will always been broken into. Laptops will always be targets for theft," Stiennon said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter@jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His e-mail address is

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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