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Lawsuit possible in NASA laptop theft

Jaikumar Vijayan | Nov. 29, 2012
A group of current and former contractors at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are considering whether to file a lawsuit due to the possible exposure of personal information stored on an agency laptop stolen from a locked car, their lawyer said Wednesday.

"What would be useful to figure out is how NASA, after all this scrutiny, was so incredibly incompetent to allow this to happen," said Nelson, who left NASA earlier this year.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Nelson and other JPL workers called on Congress to investigate the computer theft and NASA's data collection practices.

"Six years ago I and my colleagues at JPL were ordered by NASA to submit to background investigations of unlimited scope into the most intimate details of our private lives," Nelson noted in a statement. He said the data was collected from schools, residential management agents, retail businesses, employers and others .

"We warned of this possibility five years ago when we filed our lawsuit. We were ignored by the courts. Now, unfortunately, by virtue of the cavalier behavior of a NASA bureaucrat our argument has been proven," Nelson said.

In a letter addressed to several lawmakers, Nelson reiterated the concerns he had raised in the 2007 lawsuit, and asked Congress to intervene.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), one of lawmakers to whom the letter was addressed, today expressed concern over the breach.

"During hearings before the House Science Committee last spring, there was testimony on the slow pace of IT security upgrades at NASA," Schiff said in a statement.

"As a member of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees and funds NASA, I will be calling on the agency to report on and accelerate its efforts to maintain data security. The low-tech theft of a laptop is troubling enough, but it only scratches the surface of potentially far greater data vulnerabilities,'" Schiff noted.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs today said the agency understand the concerns employee concerns and regrets the inconvenience the theft has caused. "We regret that it happened and we are taking steps to ensure that it never happens again," he said.

An agency-wide full disk encryption initiative that NASA launched in the immediate aftermath of the October 31 is making solid progress, Jacobs said.

So far about 80% of NASA computers containing sensitive data have been encrypted, he said. All affected NASA computers should be encrypted by the Dec. 21 deadline, Jacobs added.

Teleworkers will no longer be allowed to take unencrypted laptops outside NASA facilities, he said.

Jacobs noted that the stolen laptop was not supposed to be taken from the JPL facilities. "That is one of the things we regret the most. That laptop was not supposed to leave the building," he said.


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