USCIS telework may add to privacy risks, IG says

Report says two USCIS service centers with higher telework rates also had higher loss rates

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency might be putting data with personally identifiable information at a higher risk of exposure by allowing its employees to telework, according to a report issued June 13 by the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The IG analyzed whether teleworking contributed to higher rates of lost files at the four USCIS service centers.

The centers together lose an average of 27,000 alien registration files each month, by in-office workers and teleworkers, the IG said. The missing files typically contain personally identifiable information such as Social Security numbers, fingerprints and photographs, the report states.

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The IG found that the two service centers with the highest rates of telework participation experienced the highest rates of missing files. The Vermont service center was responsible for 39 percent of the lost files; its telework participation rate was 23 percent. The Texas service center accounted for 32 percent of the lost files, and its telework participation rate was 24 percent.

The Nebraska center accounted for 17 percent of the lost files and had a 17 percent teleworking rate, while the California center was responsible for 12 percent of the lost files and had a 7 percent telework rate, the report states.

“Greater telework participation increases the risks to personally identifiable information because teleworkers are transporting more Alien Registration Files to additional locations than if the [files] were processed at the office,” the report states.

One area of risk is from vehicle accidents while the files are being transferred, according to the report. In one such accident, numerous files were “scattered out of the car and across the highway,” the report states. In another incident, the driver was incapacitated and “unable to protect the personally identifiable information being transported in the car.”

On average, a USCIS adjudicator at a service center who teleworks four days per week will transport about 2,000 files a year between the office and the telework site, the report states.

The investigation also identified privacy risks from data contained on unsecured data storage devices and privacy weaknesses due to gaps in encryption, system auditing and monitoring.

The IG recommended that USCIS identify vulnerabilities and mitigation strategies at its service centers, issue privacy rules of conduct for teleworkers, and develop privacy requirements to address removable data devices and system weaknesses.

USCIS officials agreed with the recommendations.

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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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Fri, Aug 19, 2011

It sounds like USCIS management is dragging their feet. That is probably because management is computer illiterate, doesn't understand the available security options and doesn't know how to make a reliable security policy. Are they really still relying on paper files? Someone needs to ditch those dinosaurs. PS Do not take this comment as age discrimination; I am over 60. It is the stagnant mindset that aggravates me.

Fri, Aug 5, 2011

USCIS is no way under funded. They are funded quite well by the legal immigrants, not the Govt, but the money might be used for other Govt bodies.

Tue, Jul 5, 2011 Mark

It is amazing that anyone can telework with the claims from USCIS. They are not the only agency with PII and others are teleworking just fine. The issue with USCIS is that their IT department is underfunded, understaffed and basically unable to manage VPN. In addition, the management / leadership in USCIS is totally opposed to telework. They have been fighting allowing employees to telework for years.

Tue, Jun 28, 2011 Former DHS employee DC

If their telework policy allows the transfer of paper files, then there is a MAJOR flaw in their policy and the Privacy Office at DHS HQ should be all over them like fleas on a dog. This should have been identified in the risk assessment for the service centers, if it had been performed properly. If the service centers have the same access as the user's work computers, why not provide network access, or at least to a DMZ where they can access files.

Mon, Jun 27, 2011

Why are they taking paper files home in the first place? Shouldn't paper documents be scanned into a computer as .pdf files for viewing at home and the paper left at the office? A 24 inch monitor at home will allow the user to display two documents or a document and an input form at the same time.

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