"On October 31, 2012, a NASA laptop and official NASA documents issued to a headquarters employee were stolen from the employee's locked vehicle. The laptop contained records of sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) for a large number of NASA employees, contractors and others," said Richard J. Keegan Jr., associate deputy administrator of NASA, in a notice sent to all employees.
The data on the laptop wasn't encrypted. "Although the laptop was password protected, it did not have whole disk encryption software, which means the information on the laptop could be accessible to unauthorized individuals," he said.
NASA doesn't yet know the full extent of the breach, presumably because the agency is still attempting to reconstruct and study everything that was on the stolen laptop. "Because of the amount of information that must be reviewed and validated electronically and manually, it may take up to 60 days for all individuals impacted by this breach to be identified and contacted," said Keegan.
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In addition to now implementing full-disk encryption software for NASA laptops, Keegan said NASA will pay ID Experts to notify people who've been affected by the breach, and to provide identity theft and credit monitoring services. Anyone affected will be notified about the breach via a written, mailed letter -- but not by email or phone, he said.
Given the continuing increase in the number of data breaches affecting organizations, and the accompanying costs of notifying affected people and cleaning up the mess, surely technology-savvy NASA would have already required that all agency laptops be secured using full-disk encryption software?
In fact, that hasn't been the case, apparently owing to user resistance. An IT executive at Goddard Space Flight Center, for example, said that the facility recently implemented data-at-rest encryption on PCs. But some users aren't fans of the software, which they said interfered with some of the tools on their PCs.
In the wake of this breach, however, NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. and CIO Linda Cureton have ordered that "no NASA-issued laptops containing sensitive information can be removed from a NASA facility unless whole disk encryption software is enabled or the sensitive files are individually encrypted," said Keegan. "This applies to laptops containing PII, international traffic in arms regulations (ITAR) and export administration regulations (EAR) data, procurement and human resources information, and other sensitive but unclassified (SBU) data."
NASA facility CIOs have been ordered to add or enable encryption capabilities for the maximum number of laptops by November 21, 2012. By December 21, 2012, all laptops that leave NASA facilities must have encryption capabilities. In the meantime, employees who are telecommunicating or traveling "should use loaner laptops if their NASA-issued laptop contains unencrypted sensitive information," according to Keegan's communication.
Cureton's office will also review whether any further agency security policies need to be revised to help prevent future data breaches stemming from lost or stolen laptops.
A NASA spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for comment about what type of full-disk or file encryption technology the agency would be using, whether it planned to train all employees to determine what qualifies as "sensitive information" that must be encrypted -- or whether employees' compliance with the new policies would be monitored and enforced.