Steal­ing From the IRS

An­other case of the gov­ern­ment aid­ing and abet­ting iden­tity theft

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters -

IRS STANDS for In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice, but af­ter a fright­en­ing re­port from the IRS in­spec­tor gen­eral on the in­abil­ity of the tax col­lec­tion agency to pro­tect tax­payer data, IRS might stand for In­for­ma­tion Re­lin­quish­ing Ser­vice. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port re­leased last week, al­most 500 lap­top com­put­ers were lost or stolen from the homes, cars or of­fices of agency work­ers be­tween Jan­uary 2003 and June 2006. That’s some­thing sure to bring a smile to the faces of white-col­lar crim­i­nals who dab­ble in iden­tity theft.

This wouldn’t be the first time they’re smil­ing cour­tesy of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. A year ago, the Com­merce De­part­ment re­ported more than 1,000 lap­tops miss­ing, some with sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion. And the De­part­ment of Vet­eran Af­fairs had a lap­top with in­for­ma­tion on 26.5 mil­lion peo­ple pinched last May. It was re­turned a month later with ev­ery­thing in­tact. Now it’s the IRS’s turn to mess up.

The agency has 52,511 lap­tops, with the typ­i­cal com­puter hold­ing 10 to 25 tax cases. Given the sen­si­tiv­ity of the in­for­ma­tion at its dis­posal, you’d think the IRS would be on the ball about pro­tect­ing it. And you’d be wrong. Twice — in 2003 and early 2006 — the agency was warned by the in­spec­tor gen­eral about its lax ways. In­for­ma­tion was not en­crypted. Pass­word pro­tec­tions were not up to par. Many work­ers didn’t re­port their com­put­ers lost or stolen, as re­quired. The re­port even high­lighted one worker who taped a pa­per with all the needed user names and pass­words to the lap­top. The IRS fi­nally started ad­dress­ing th­ese prob­lems in the last half of last year.

An agency spokes­woman wanted tax­pay­ers to know that the IRS re­ally does take th­ese se­cu­rity breaches very se­ri­ously. For in­stance, she told us, nearly ev­ery lap­top now is en­crypted, mean­ing no one can get at the vi­tal in­for­ma­tion stored on the hard drive. In ad­di­tion, ev­ery em­ployee with an IRS lap­top has been is­sued a cable lock that se­cures the com­puter in its dock­ing sta­tion. And work­ers who travel are now told to take the locks with them and to chain the lap­top to a piece of furniture in their ho­tel rooms. May we sug­gest the mini-bar?

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