Laptop theft puts 40,000 school employees at risk

Two laptop computers containing the names and Social Security numbers of about 40,000 current and former employees of the Chicago Public Schools were stolen from district headquarters April 6.

While school district officials promised tighter security, Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart said she’s “furious” about the breach that left employees vulnerable to identity theft.

“I’m furious, I’m outraged, and I’m disgusted,” Stewart said in a statement. “My members are once again victims of a lapse of security on the part of CPS.”

Stewart said the theft was the third security breach involving employees’ personal information in less than six months. In November, former employees’ identifying information was included in a mailing about health insurance. In January, employee W2 forms were distributed improperly, she said.

The laptops, which belong to an accounting firm and its subcontractor, contain the names and Social Security numbers of current and former CPS employees who contributed to the system’s Teacher Pension Fund from 2003 to 2006.

Schools CEO Arne Duncan on April 9 said the district plans to buy a year of credit and identity-theft protection for affected employees.

The district also offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or the recovery of the computers and was working closely with police as of press time,

Duncan said.

School Board President Rufus Williams said the district is making changes to reduce its reliance on Social Security numbers to track employees.

The district plans to hire a company to “do a top-to-bottom scrubbing of our data systems to remove any vulnerabilities and limit as much as possible the access points to sensitive data,” Williams said in a statement. Additional security officers also will be posted at district headquarters, he said.

Hoping to guard against such a scenario, some school systems are installing anti-theft protection software on their mobile computers.

One such solution, from Absolute Software, works like a Lojack system for a laptop. The tracking agent, called Computrace, silently calls into Absolute’s monitoring center each time a user logs onto the internet. If a Computrace-equipped laptop is reported lost or stolen, its location can be traced, and Absolute works with law-enforcement officials to recover the asset.

“Laptop theft is a fact of life,” said John Livingston, the company’s chief executive. “We really can’t get away from it. What we can do is help protect laptops from being stolen by using a product that can track notebooks with an embedded method and get them back if they’re lost or stolen.”

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