FEMA investigates breach of Katrina victims’ private information

Personal information on people who applied for disaster aid after Hurricane Katrina was recently published on the Web without authorization, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

FEMA is investigating the unauthorized posting of the names, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, addresses and other personal information that the agency collected from applicants, FEMA announced in a news release dated Dec. 19 and modified Dec. 23. FEMA was alerted Dec. 16 to a Web site posting of a spreadsheet that contained 16,857 lines of personal information about Hurricane Katrina evacuees from the Gulf Coast to Texas, the news release states.

After FEMA officials verified the problem and identified a second Web site on which similar information was posted, they worked with the Web sites’ owners to remove the information from public view, the news release states.

FEMA officials suspect the data breach originated in a state agency to which FEMA had released the data because, among other reasons, the spreadsheet’s format differs from the format FEMA uses.

“FEMA believes that most of the applicant information posted on the Web sites was properly released by FEMA to a state agency [that] requested and received this information to fulfill routine needs following Hurricane Katrina,” the news release states.

Although FEMA’s release of the information to the state was proper, FEMA did not authorize the subsequent posting on the Web, the agency said.

“FEMA and the state agency from which this unauthorized release may have originated are cooperating in a thorough investigation of this matter,” FEMA officials said in the release.

FEMA is contacting all applicants whose information was posted and will provide them with an 18-month subscription to an identity-theft protection service.

“FEMA regrets that this information was posted and is working collaboratively with its state partner and others to fully investigate this matter,” the release states. “The investigation will continue until the source and circumstances of the breach have been identified.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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