- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A California county sheriff’s office is investigating last month’s theft of a laptop containing sensitive information on 33,000 airline passengers and is interviewing employees of the private security company running a federal passenger-identification program.

“We know that the laptop was stolen, and then it reappeared, so it just wasn’t simply misplaced. This wasn’t a magic act,” said San Mateo County Sheriff’s Lt. Ray Lunny. “So a criminal investigation is being conducted by the sheriff’s office.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “is working to confirm there was no breach of information from the laptop,” Lt. Lunny said.

The laptop, which went missing July 26 from a locked office at San Francisco International Airport, was found at the airport last week. It was being used in the TSA’s Registered Traveler program, which allows airline passengers to bypass certain security procedures at commercial airports in the U.S.

Nearly 200,000 passengers have joined the prescreening program.

TSA officials said the company that runs the program, Verified Identity Pass (VIP), has met proper encryption standards for all computers and may resume operations.

There is still some dispute as to whether the laptop was stolen or misplaced.

“We don’t know what happened,” said Allison Beer, VIP spokeswoman. “It is a suspected theft, but the investigation is ongoing.

A TSA spokeswoman declined to comment on how the computer went missing.

Asked whether any data in the computer had been accessed, Ms. Beer said, “none, there is no indication that it happened, but the TSA investigation is ongoing.”

“All of the data, at this stage, has been encrypted and the kiosks and laptops encrypted,” she said.

TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said that a third party will verify the encryption and that Homeland Security officials will also conduct random audits at airports across the country where the company operates to ensure compliance.

Ms. Payne said that the company was ordered to inform all of the 33,000 passengers listed in the laptop about a potential security breach and that they have confirmation that notification took place. The TSA is still reviewing results of the forensic audit performed on the computer to confirm that the data had not been accessed.

The computer went missing on July 26, but VIP failed to notify the TSA until Aug. 3, and the government suspended further registration into the program, which now numbers 180,000.

The Registered Traveler program operates at 20 U.S. airports including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport and allows frequent fliers to register with a program called “Clear” for access to a fast-lane security check.

The information did not include credit card numbers or the applicant’s Social Security number. It also did not include any biometric information, such as the applicant’s encrypted fingerprint images or encrypted iris images, which are supplied during the second in-person enrollment process that takes place at the airport.

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