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3/29/2010
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Violation Of Sensitive Data Storage Policy Led To Exposure Of Info On 3.3 Million Student Loan Recipients

Removable media device stolen from Educational Credit Management Corp.'s (ECMC) headquarters contained Social Security numbers, names, addresses, dates of birth of people who had received federal student loans

A removable media device containing personal data on 3.3 million people was stolen from the Minnesota headquarters of federal student loan guarantor Educational Credit Management Corp. (ECMC) last week -- and the data should never have been copied onto the device in the first place.

ECMC, which handles and insures more than $11 billion worth of student loans for the U.S. Department of Education, discovered on March 23 that the device had been stolen. The firm is currently in the process of sending letters to all of the affected loan recipients, some of whom date back to as long as 15 years ago. Their names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth were on the stolen device, but no bank account or financial data, according to ECMC.

David Hawn, chief business development officer for ECMC, said in an interview that storing such sensitive data on a removable device was a "very clear violation of our company policies and protocols." He would not specify whether the device was a USB stick, hard drive, or other type of device due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing investigation by law enforcement. Hawn also was not able to reveal whether the data was encrypted, either.

"This situation was unfortunate in that it had a human element to it...It really was a disappointment to all of us that this had occurred," Hawn says, and the company is in the process of doing a full-blown review of its internal security policies and plans to "make changes."

"We unfortunately learned about this the hard way, and we are working diligently to shore that up," he says. "Our systems security infrastructure is very robust, and in fact since this incident occurred, by way of precaution we have hired an external agency to perform various penetration tests on our firewalls -- all the testing has been negative."

Hawn says it doesn't appear the thief or thieves were targeting specific information in the crime. "There's nothing to suggest that they were aware of what they were taking," Hawn says.

And thus far, ECMC says there's been no evidence of any abuse of the data. The company is offering the affected victims free credit monitoring and reporting with Experian.

ECMC's problem isn't unique: Ipswitch File Transfer will release a study tomorrow that shows that 90 percent of IT and security professionals use thumb drives or external devices to move data. Few companies bother encrypting data on those devices, either, says Frank Kenney, vice president of global strategy at Ipswitch. "Encryption generally doesn't happen. It's rare," Kenney says.

"We were shocked by how many people are using [these devices] to share or move large files," Kenney says.

The data potentially exposed includes existing, ongoing, and older, inactive federal student loans as well, ECMC's Hawn says. "It did include, for archival purposes, a number of records" that date back to 15 years ago, he says.

ECMC serves as the guarantor for loans in Oregon, Virginia, and Connecticut, but borrowers in all states could be affected by the breach, according to one published report.

Potential victims of the breach can go to this page set up by ECMC to get more information on whether they are affected, and if so, what to do.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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