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Pioneer Editorial: Lack of data security very disturbing

The theft of computer records containing the very personal data of 26.5 million veterans -- virtually all current living U.S. veterans -- raises a number of serious questions and should prompt a whole new branch for Homeland Security.

We are a nation are war, a war against terrorism, and we are determined to build a 2,000-mile fence between the United States and Mexico to keep undesirables out.

Yet we allow a federal employee not only access to broad, sweeping private data such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and names of 26.5 million veterans, but also the ability to take that data away from a secure workplace to that worker's home. The electronic file was subsequently stolen from that employee's home. Whether the thief purposely or unknowingly has an idea of what he took, nonetheless millions and millions of veterans are now at risk of identity theft.

To make matters worse, Department of Veterans Affairs officials didn't inform the public of the risk veterans are now at for three weeks after the theft.

Congress is already abuzz with a call for hearings and an investigation -- and rightly so. Whether VA Secretary Jim Ni-cholson retains his job is immaterial. The greater question is just how vulnerable is the American public at large to such thefts across the federal government.

Tonight, will an IRS agent have at home a data file at home with the Social Security number and incomes of 100 million American filers? This afternoon, will a Department of Health and Human Services employee take lunch while out in his unlocked car is a laptop with medical files of 50 million Medicare recipients?

We created a huge federal bureaucracy in the Department of Homeland Security, so why do we not have policies and ways to test those policies in place for the handling of such important data files?

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., has requested the Government Accountability Office to review security procedures at all federal agencies to ensure that people's personal data are being adequately safeguarded. And Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, co-sponsored legislation to provide free credit monitoring to affected vets for a year, and one free credit report each year for two years after the end of the credit monitoring.

Oberstar also asks for an investigation into the VA's compliance with the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act, which requires federal agencies to test their systems, develop cyber-security plans and report on their progress.

It's obvious that there are huge gaps in our homeland security when it comes to computer records. We wonder why even it is possible for one person to handle records for so many people. A good question is how can a federal employee simply walk out the door with sensitive data, but an even better question is how can someone gain broad access to such intimate data for so many people?