Personal data on 17,000 Pfizer employees exposed; P2P app blamed

An employee had installed file-sharing software on a company laptop

A Pfizer Inc. employee who installed unauthorized file-sharing software on a company laptop provided for use at her home has exposed the Social Security numbers and other personal data belonging to about 17,000 current and former employees at the drug maker.

Of that group, about 15,700 people actually had their data accessed and copied by an unknown number of persons on a peer-to-peer network, the company said in letters sent to affected employees and to state attorneys general alerting them of the breach.

Pfizer officials could not be immediately reached for comment. But copies of the letters were posted on several sites, including Pharmalot, a blog covering the pharmaceutical industry.

The incident has prompted an investigation by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal; some 305 Pfizer employees in that state were affected by the breach. In a June 6 letter (download PDF), Blumenthal asked Pfizer to provide details on the measures in place prior to the breach to protect against data compromises, as well as information about when the company discovered the breach and how it responded.

Blumenthal's letter also asked Pfizer to describe how it was able to make a distinction between the data that was actually compromised and data that might only potentially have been accessed. Blumenthal's letter gave Pfizer until June 22 to respond.

According to Pfizer's description of the incident in its letter to employees, the compromise stemmed from the use of unauthorized file-sharing software on an employee's laptop.

The June 1 letter signed by Pfizer General Counsel Lisa Goldman did not mention how the company discovered the breach. But she said that as soon as the company did become aware of the breach, it recovered the laptop from the employee and the file-sharing software was disabled. Because the system was being used to access the Internet from outside of Pfizer's own network, no other data was compromised. Goldman also apologized to the affected individuals for the inconvenience.

Pfizer has contracted for a "support and protection" package with credit reporting agency Experian for all affected persons, Goldman said. The packages include a year's worth of free credit monitoring service and a $25,000 insurance policy covering costs that individuals might incur as a result of the breach, Goldman noted.

Such incidents highlight the importance of implementing controls for preventing either accidental or deliberate data leaks via file-sharing tools or applications such as instant messaging systems, said Devin Redmond, director of the security products group at security vendor Websense Inc. Such controls should include measures such as content filtering at network gateways, strong controls on access to sensitive data and prevention of access to file-sharing applications, he said.

News of the Pfizer breach coincides with the release of a study by Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business that looked into the dangers posed by file-sharing applications. The study examined data involving P2P searches and files related to the top 30 U.S. banks over a seven-week period between December 2006 and February 2007. A surprisingly high number of people sharing music and other files on peer-to-peer systems are inadvertently exposing all sorts of bank account data and similar personal information on their computers to criminals lurking on the networks to harvest data, according to the report.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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