Agency chief: Data on stolen VA laptop may have been erased
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thieves may have erased personal data on millions of veterans that was on a laptop they stole, the secretary of veterans affairs said Thursday.
At least, that's the burglars' modus operandi, Secretary James Nicholson said at a hearing before the House Government Reform Committee.
The laptop was stolen in May from the home of a Veterans Affairs employee who, in violation of agency regulations, took it to a private residence.
It contained Social Security numbers, names and addresses for more than 26 million veterans as well as possibly millions of current service members and reservists.
Nicholson said the burglars in this case may have been the same ones who committed similar burglaries in the area. In other cases, information on the computers was quickly erased and the units resold.
"(Authorities) think their M.O. is to take these things, clean them up actually, erase them and fence them into a market for college campuses and high schools," Nicholson told lawmakers, although he admitted authorities could not be certain that was the case with the VA laptop.
He said authorities have apprehended some suspects and recovered some computer equipment, but not the VA laptop.
The incident has led to calls for reform in the Veterans Affairs department.
Nicholson told the committee that the department needs a massive culture change to ensure that staffers follow rules, including policy on protecting information.
"It is too hard, in my opinion, to discipline people in civil service," Nicholson said. "I have multiple examples ... of people in each strata, leadership of the VA, that due to cultural lapses have violated existing policies."
He suggested that Congress pass stronger enforcement mechanisms and penalties for government employees who handle data.
And Nicholson promised to go on a "personal crusade" to dramatically change the culture at Veterans Affairs to clamp down on rules and security.
Some committee members were unimpressed.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, chastised Nicholson for blaming a single employee and a culture at his agency, saying, "That doesn't sound like we're getting to the heart of this with passing the buck."
And Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, forcefully stated his belief that the scope of the loss indicates serious problems on many levels.
"It is really difficult to imagine, with all of the money we spend on security at the federal level every year, how what appears to be a garden-variety burglary in suburban Maryland could result in a breach of the personal information of over 26 million veterans," he said.
CNN's Lisa Goddard contributed to this report.
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