USDA will take years to clean SSNs from systems

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The Agriculture Department may take several years to scrub all unnecessary Social Security numbers from systems or replace systems containing the personal identifiers to better protect the sensitive information of farmers and ranchers who do business with the agency, Charles Christopherson Jr., USDA's chief financial officer, told lawmakers.

USDA last month discovered through the complaint of a loan recipient that it had inadvertently made public the Social Security and/or employer identification numbers of 38,700 grant and loan recipients. The data was publicly available through the Federal Assistance Awards Data System, which the Census Bureau manages.

Nonprofit, university and state Web sites, such as fedspending.org, reposted the information, he said.

The nine-digit Social Security or employer ID numbers were embedded in 15-digit federal award identifier numbers. USDA formulated the makeup of these identifiers decades ago, Christopherson told the House Agriculture Committee yesterday.

“It was not readily apparent when viewing the aggregated data that these were Social Security numbers,” he said.

USDA immediately redacted the numbers from the system after the April 13 discovery. It will take years to replace all the USDA award numbers with new unique identifiers.

“To remove these as a key identifier often takes reprogramming, and that will take more than just a short period of time,” Christopherson he said.

As a result of the data breach, USDA has directed its agencies to:
  • Retake inventory of all data they collect in files, documents and databases to ensure full knowledge of sensitive information they may contain.
  • Identify all entities to which they provide data, the source of the data and whether it includes sensitive data and its justification.
  • Review employees’ training in the Privacy Act and assess its adequacy in communicating stewardship of sensitive data.
  • Safeguard sensitive information as a control item to be routinely evaluated as part of annual internal control assessment.

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