Universities Rocked by Data Thefts

The Universities of Miami and Virginia acknowledge lost data on stolen tapes and laptops

James Rogers, Contributor

April 18, 2008

3 Min Read

1:55 PM

By James Rogers
News Editor, Byte and Switch

The University of Miami and the University of Virginia are the two latest organizations to be rocked by data breaches after the theft of sensitive data affecting tens of thousands of people.

Details of the University of Miami’s security snafu are starting to emerge after officials confirmed yesterday the theft of backup tapes containing medical data and Social Security numbers on some 47,000 people.

In a statement released Thursday, the university explained that the theft occurred when a case of tapes was stolen from a vehicle in downtown Coral Gables. The vehicle had been contracted by a “private off-site storage company," though officials but did not reveal the identity of the firm involved.

Anyone who has been a patient of a University of Miami physician or visited one of the university’s medical facilities since Jan. 1, 1999, is likely to be included on the tapes, according to officials.

Information contained on the stolen media includes names, addresses, Social Security numbers, health information, and, in some cases, credit card and financial data.

”We felt that in the best interest of the physician-patient relationship, we should be transparent in this matter,” said Pascal Goldschmidt, dean of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, in a statement, adding that he is confident that patients’ data is safe.

The tapes were written in a “complex and proprietary format," making it unlikely that a thief could access the data, according to the university. When the theft occurred last month, officials also brought in security specialist Terremark to work out whether data could be accessed from a similar set of backup tapes.

”Because of the highly proprietary compression and encoding used in writing the tapes, we were unable to extract any usable data,” said Christopher Day, senior VP of Terremark’s Secure Information Services group, in a statement.

Law enforcement agencies are currently investigating the theft, although Miami is not the only university dealing with the consequences of stolen data.

The University of Virginia also hit the headlines this week following the theft of a laptop from one of its employees. The laptop contained information on more than 7,000 staff, students, and faculty, according to media reports.

Local Charlottesville newspaper The Daily Progress reports that the laptop, which contained a file with names and Social Security numbers, was stolen from an undisclosed location in Albemarle County.

This is not the first time that the University of Virginia has been struck by a data breach.

Last year a hacker broke into the university’s network and accessed the records of 5,735 faculty members, prompting the school to call in the FBI to work on the case alongside the university police and its IT workers.

The University of Virginia did not respond to Byte and Switch’s requests for comment on the stolen laptop, although the local Albemarle County Police Department is said to be investigating the theft.

Research released today by analyst firm AMI Partners reveals the staggering scale of data breaches experienced by U.S. firms, with up to 86 percent of medium-sized American businesses reporting some form of security breach or data loss in the last 12 months.

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