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Montana state agencies failed to remove private information before retiring outdated state computers, risking public disclosure of Social Security and credit card numbers, medical records and income taxes, a new report discloses. The legislative audit, obtained Tuesday, blamed unclear state policy for the computer hard drives not being properly “scrubbed” before the machines were donated to school districts, given to other state agencies or sold to the public. “The state lacks a single clear policy instructing departments on information removal, assigning responsibility for defining sensitive data, and assigning responsibility for performing data removal and certifying the task has been accomplished,” the auditors said. Janet Kelly, Department of Administration director, said in a written response that her agency immediately began crafting a more concise policy to ensure private information held by the government is not made public. “The resulting language will require that all data must be irretrievably removed from the hard drive,” she said. David Stenhouse, a former Secret Service agent and computer forensic expert with Navigant Consulting Inc. in Seattle, said Wednesday what happened with the surplus computers in Montana is likely not isolated. State governments, law firms and hospitals often donate or sell surplus computers, but don’t always have a protocol for ensuring that all sensitive information is removed, he said. “I suspect that’s actually fairly common,” said Stenhouse, who also teaches computer forensics at the University of Washington. While commercial software can permanently delete information from hard drives, users don’t always use it properly or are not aware of its limitations, Stenhouse said. “There are all kinds of corners in a computer for information to hide,” he said. Jeff Brandt, acting chief information officer for the state, said Tuesday the new policy should be complete by mid-July. In the meantime, he said, a warning has gone out to all information technology officials throughout state government. Brandt said the information discovered by the auditor’s office was never divulged, so the people to whom it pertains need not be concerned. However, he acknowledged the state has no way of knowing if other data on other discarded state computers was disclosed over the years as the machines changed hands. The state has about 11,000 desktop computers and regularly disposes of aging machines. Last year alone, 51 agencies got rid of more 2,300 computers. Most are given to school districts. Auditors obtained 18 discarded state computers and found 12 of them contained information related to the department that had used them. The hard drives contained software that should have been removed, legal hearing notes, meeting files, citizen e-mails to department staff, and permit application information. Eight of the machines also held confidential data, including 386 Social Security numbers, financial records for 182 people, 84 business files and job applicant information. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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