10 woeful tales of data gone missing

Tape happens

The idea of our identities being stolen scares us all in this day of electronic everything. But deliberate theft is only part of the problem. Backup tapes, the repositories of millions upon millions of personal data records, are slippery little devils. We see this in incident after incident, even though companies have been using magnetic tapes for more than 50 years and should know by now how to hang on to them. Here are 10 woeful tales involving backup tapes -- some current, some classic and one just plain unusual.

Taking the fast train to data loss

This past September, an IT technician for Harvard Law School put six unencrypted data storage tapes in his backpack at a legal services clinic in Jamaica Plain, Mass., and hopped on the subway headed to Cambridge, home to the university. When he arrived at Harvard Law, he discovered that one of the tapes had gone missing -- and with it, the personal information of 21,000 present and former clients.

Tape heist brings heat to Miami school

Last April, the University of Miami reported the theft of six backup tapes belonging to the Miller School of Medicine. Thieves nabbed the tapes, which contained more than 2 million medical records, after breaking into an Archive America vehicle that was destined for an off-site storage facility. The theft occurred in mid-March, but the university waited for a month before posting notice. At the time, a school official said, "Even though I am confident that our patients' data is safe, we felt that in the best interest of the physician-patient relationship, we should be transparent in this matter."

Read the news story .

American institutions: Banking and mag tape, a bad combo

A box of backup tapes containing unencrypted data on Bank of New York Mellon customers went missing last February during transport by storage firm Archive America to an off-site facility. The bank maintains that none of the lost data has been accessed or misused, but at risk is a lot of personal information (names, birth dates, Social Security numbers and possibly bank account numbers). BNY Mellon initially said the tapes held records for 4.5 million individuals, but eventually upped the number to 12.5 million.

Read how BNY Mellon changed IT policies as a result of the loss .

Lost and found in Utah

Last June, University of Utah Hospitals & Clinics got some dreaded news. Backup tapes it had sent off with a courier for Perpetual Storage, its storage archive provider, never made it to the off-site facility. Rather than making the delivery, the courier went home for the night, leaving the tapes in his parked car. In the morning they were gone, and gone with them were the billing records of some 2.2 million patients. The good news is that within a month, the Salt Lake County Sheriff's office recovered the tapes, which apparently had not been accessed or misused, the university reported.

Read the news story .

HIPAA rules come to bear

In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services negotiated its first "Resolution Agreement" under HIPAA's privacy and security standards. The $100,000 agreement, plus a compliance plan, stemmed from a 2006 incident at Providence Home Services, a division of Seattle-based Providence Health System. The operation lost the personal information and confidential medical records of 365,000 people when backup tapes and disks were stolen from an employee's home. The employee had brought the tapes and disks home as part of a routine procedure meant to safeguard the stored data against loss from fire or other disasters.

Read the news story .

Now where did that tape get to?

In October 2007, GE Money learned from off-site data-storage company Iron Mountain that one of its archive tapes could not be located -- though the firm had no record of it being checked out. GE Money manages in-store credit-card programs for 230 retailers. The tape contains unencrypted credit-card information for 650,000 of the retailers' customers, as well as for GE Money employees.

Read the news story .

No biz like off-site storage archiving

In this data-loss classic, Time Warner made big news in May 2005 when it reported that backup tapes disappeared during what should have been a routine delivery by Iron Mountain to the storage provider's off-site facility. The missing tapes held such information as the names and Social Security numbers of 600,000 current and former U.S.-based employees, their dependents and beneficiaries, Time Warner reported at the time.

Read the news story .

When Brown doesn?t delive

In another data-loss classic, Citigroup initiated a wave of consumer concern when it reported the loss of computer tapes that contained personal data and credit information of 3.9 million CitiFinancial customers. The tapes disappeared while en route, via UPS, to a credit bureau.

Read the news story .

Alaska department faces cold data-loss reality

Not being able to read a backup tape can be just as bad as not being able to find it: That's a lesson learned the hard way at the Alaska Department of Revenue. A few years back, as reported by the Associated Press, a computer technician obliterated information for an account worth $38 billion when he mistakenly reformatted the disk drive -- and its backup -- on which the data was stored. Topping off the disaster, backup tapes were unreadable. The department had to re-enter all the data by hand, at no small cost. In fact, the incident came to light only when the department asked lawmakers to approve a supplemental budget of slightly more than $220,000 for costs incurred during the six-week recovery project.

NASA thanks its lucky stars

This story is waiting on a happy ending -- recovery of data about moon dust gathered during Apollo missions in the late '60s to early '70s. NASA recorded the data on 173 tapes, then stashed some away at its facilities and others at Sydney University. When scientific interest in moon-dust data arose last year, NASA came up empty-handed in its search for tapes, but the Sydney tapes were found. The decades-old tapes, however, aren't readable by modern tape drives. An Australian data recovery firm, SpectrumData, located a rare IBM 729 Mark 5 tape drive. In November, it began restoration work on the tape drive so it'd be able to read the old NASA tapes.

Read the news story .

Have you been a victim of lost data?

Have you ever received news that your personal information has been lost or breached? Click on the Comments link above to share your story.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.