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A Lesson Plan For The Department Of Education

Another week, another preventable exposure of citizen data at a government agency. Last week's spillage in the spotlight came courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education. A glitch in a new software program created a situation where the wrong client data was being shown to people trying to update their student loan accounts. After a number of complaints, the ED shut down the affected Web pages. Then, apparen
Another week, another preventable exposure of citizen data at a government agency. Last week's spillage in the spotlight came courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education. A glitch in a new software program created a situation where the wrong client data was being shown to people trying to update their student loan accounts. After a number of complaints, the ED shut down the affected Web pages. Then, apparently, they worked on stonewalling.As reporter Sharon Gaudin and I worked on the story, formulating questions and a list of people to call and things to check, it quickly became clear that from a PR standpoint, the agency and its contractor need to study up on recent history.

If they did, they might learn that data breaches in general, and delayed admissions in particular, are greeted with much horror and scrutiny by the public and, increasingly, legislative bodies. They might also learn that the anger and angst over such breaches has led to Senate hearings, public pillorying, canceled contracts, the largest-ever fine issued by the Federal Trade Commission, new security directives from the White House for federal agencies, and, increasingly, firings and resignations. If they found themselves a little pressed for time and in need of some CliffsNotes on the subject, they could cut to the chase very quickly by calling over to the Veterans Administration.

If they did any of that, they might also have discovered there are several cardinal rules of spin control, among them:

* Ignorance is not bliss. * The longer you stall exponentially lengthens the lifespan of the story. * The press won't go away empty-handed.

I would to add to this that anyone victimized or negatively impacted by your mistake has a right to an immediate explanation.

Of course, the real goal is NOT to have to employ spin control, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Despite the fact that the breach was detailed in a front-page story in a major metropolitan daily newspaper, complete with a huge jump, we found both the contractor and the ED less than ready, and seemingly unwilling, to explain what had happened. And as of Friday, almost a week after the event, we still couldn't find any sign of a press release or official statement, or anyone who could say what program exactly had caused the problem. Also still unclear was whether anyone bothered to test the new software before deploying it. (That's where the part about avoiding the need for spin control comes in.)

In between, a vice president at the contractor responsible for the software install claimed to have no knowledge of the software in question, noting that the company handles a lot of projects, and he couldn't be expected to be intimate with all of them. All of them? Of course not. But how about the one that exposed the personal data of users on a government Web site? Especially three days after the incident was discovered and examined in detail in a lengthy front-page news story. Yeah, that's one we'd expect him to be "intimate" with.

Then, despite his saying he had no knowledge of either the incident or the application, he nonetheless asserted that "no one's data was lost." When pressed as to how he could possibly know that, he backed up in a hurry. In fact, he can't know that. The Department of Education doesn't know, either. What we do know is that some visitors to the site were handed the keys to stealing other citizens' identity, were they inclined to do so. (In fact, about 21,000 users of the student loan application are at risk of having their data exposed.)

The department wasn't much more forthcoming initially. While acknowledging that any breach, no matter how small, is one too many and needs to be taken seriously, and despite insisting that the ED wasn't trying to keep information from the public, the spokeswoman also said there was no press release or official statement, and no plans to have either "at this time." Nor was any information put up on its Web site. In fact, as of Thursday, the plan was to alert the 21,000 visitors whose data might have been compromised by letter. As in snail mail.

The point here isn't that some government workers gave some reporters a hard time. We eventually got an interview and some information confirmed. It's about accountability, and about letting the public know when they've been exposed to a risk. It's about letting actions speak louder than words. Don't tell us you're taking it seriously--show us.

If the contractor and the ED spokeswoman were for real and knew this little about the incident after the fact, it kind of makes you wonder how much attention both the agency and the contractor were paying to begin with. There's a lot of data here to be responsible for, and that's where "taking it seriously" really comes into play. You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk it, too.

One can only hope that the powers that be at both the agency and the contractor have the good sense to order up a postmortem so that they can figure out what software was involved, why this happened, what they need to do to make sure it doesn't happen again, and how they're going to handle it if--worst case scenario--it does.

In the meantime, if they aren't publicly flogged by the GAO, questioned by a Senate committee, or asked to clear out their desks, they can consider themselves half as lucky as the users of the student loan program who were affected by the glitch and don't have their identities stolen.

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