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Painful Privacy Lessons

Since the theft of a disk containing names, social security numbers, and birth dates for more than 26 million veterans from the home of a Veterans Affairs data analyst was made public last week, the outcry over the agency's failure to guard the privacy of what are effectively its most valued customers has continued non-stop. VA Inspector General George Opfer confessed at a Senate hearing last week that supervisors of the VA data analyst were unaware the employee had the file containing the veterans' personal identifying information in his possession. Last week, I railed against the lack of plain old common sense with regard to data privacy and physical security. And though I find myself still confounded by this incident, I think there are some good lessons that can be learned by all of us - both from the perspective of protecting customer information and guarding our own data as consumers.In this morning's New York Times, an article on technology and data privacy quoted a frightening statistic that in Arizona, the state with the highest rate of identity theft, one in six adults had their confidential personal information stolen. The article said that Arizona's rate of identity theft is twice the national average but still, the fact that one in 12 people over the age of 18 have are facing the challenges posed by identity theft is still unacceptable.

Clearly as dramatic as the VA example is, it isn't the only case of a failure to construct and enforce effective data protection policies. There is certainly a wealth of tools available to secure private information but without the proper policies defined, communicated, and executed on, the best security technology in the world will be virtually useless in defending customer information. From the consumer perspective, this is yet another alarm to all of us on how important it is to guard our social security numbers, stay informed as to incidents that could involve a compromise of this kind of private information, and monitor our credit for any unauthorized activity.

Privacy protection needs to be an ongoing activity - not a one-off project. Organizations need to secure the most private data at all points of exposure. And from a consumer point of view, we need to remain alert not just when we are initially notified of a possible breach but in the months and years that follow one.