Laptops lost, stolen at Justice

More than 400 laptop computers at Justice Department agencies and bureaus that stored sensitive information have been lost or stolen, according to the department's Office of the Inspector General.

"It is possible that the missing laptop computers would have been used to process and store national security or sensitive law enforcement information that, if divulged, could harm the public," according to the IG report.

The FBI lost 317 laptops, which represents 2 percent of the total 15,000 laptops in its inventory, according to the report. The U.S. Marshals Service lost 56. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported 27 missing laptops, out of an inventory of 2,690. The Bureau of Prisons and the Marshals Service's audits cover laptop computers reported lost, stolen or missing from October 1999 to August 2001, and the FBI's audit covers equipment reported missing from October 1999 to January 2002.

The Drug Enforcement Administration could not provide the IG with the number of lost or stolen laptops because of the "unreliability of data," according to the report.

"The loss of these items is significant because of the sensitive nature of the missing property," Justice IG Glenn Fine says in the audit. "The information contained on these laptop computers could compromise national security or jeopardize ongoing investigations."

Before last year, the FBI had not taken a complete inventory of laptop computers in almost a decade, breaking an agency policy that requires inventory to be taken every two years, Fine said.

In a statement, FBI officials said they are tightening inventory control by strictly enforcing rigorous and regular property accounting procedures, promising a prompt and robust response to the loss of any sensitive property, such as a laptop, and defining and enforcing individual liability for negligently lost property.

"We commend the inspector general and his staff for thorough investigation into this matter involving unaccounted-for laptop computers," according to an FBI statement released last week.

John Pike, a former defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and now director of GlobalSecurity.org, said the loss and theft of laptop computers is a problem that will continue to plague agencies regardless of security measures. "It is a known fact that these laptops have been known to get up and walk off by themselves," he said.

But Pike was not optimistic that the FBI's controls would be successful. "Personally, I think the problem is going to get a lot worse once the Trilogy system is completed."

Trilogy is the FBI's $400 million information technology upgrade that will provide FBI agents with improved access to investigation files and other information. The IG report listed a series of recommendations for Justice agencies to follow. The proposals include:

* Using bar codes and scanning devices to better track sensitive property.

* Tightening requirements for reporting the loss of laptop computers.

* Revising the guidelines for retrieving sensitive property from employees who leave.

* Requiring that laptop computer disposal documents certify that all sensitive information has been removed from the laptops' hard drives before the computer has been discarded.

As a result of the IG's recommendations, FBI officials said they could strengthen and better enforce current policies and practices as well as apply new security procedures (see box).

"It is possible to reduce the number of lost or stolen laptops within these agencies, but I truly believe that there is no way to completely eliminate the problem," Pike said.

***

Keeping Track

The FBI, which is missing 317 of the more than 400 laptops lost or stolen at the Justice Department, plans to tighten its policies. The FBI will:

* Conduct inventories of sensitive property, such as weapons and laptop computers, every year instead of every other year.

* Establish firm deadlines for employees to report the loss or theft of FBI property to their supervisors and for supervisors to report to headquarters, for the Office of Professional Responsibility to initiate and complete investigations and for employees to enter losses into the National Crime Information Center, when appropriate.

* Improve disciplinary measures applied to employees who lose a laptop or have one stolen from them.

* Strengthen the policy for proper storage of FBI property outside the office.

* Ensure that when employees leave the bureau, all property is accounted for and reimbursement is made for any missing property.

* Improve the documentation of the destruction of excess laptop computers and hard drives.

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