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Veterans Groups Sue to Restrict Use of Portable Digital Devices by VA Employees

June 7, 2006
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Call it revenge in the electronic age—you lose my data, I take away your iPod.

In a strange twist to the data breach at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the theft of personal data for millions of veterans could mean the confiscation of many government workers’ personal music players.

A lawsuit filed by veterans groups Tuesday (June 6) asks a federal court to prevent the VA and its employees from removing "any device capable of storing, containing, or transferring any record or system of records, including … ‘iPods’ and similar devices, from property under VA’s supervision and control until and unless VA demonstrates that adequate information security has been established to the Court’s satisfaction."

The lawsuit, which accuses the VA of violating laws including the Privacy Act of 1974, also asks for damages of $1,000 for each individual "adversely affected" by the VA’s alleged Privacy Act violations.

The VA did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The legal tussle, with its iPod overtones, stems from the VA's admission last month that personal data for as many as 26.5 million veterans, as the agency first said, had been stolen from an employee's home. The agency said the data included names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth for veterans and some spouses. On June 6, however, the VA revised its previous descriptions of the records involved, and said that the data potentially included information on as many as 2.2 million current military service personnel, including up to 80 percent of the active-duty force.

Identity theft and data privacy have become hot topics recently, with most of the attention focused on consumers. But observers have warned that employee data lapses could explode in employers’ faces, resulting in possible legal violations and damage to company reputations.

Companies that create and back privacy rules can boost morale, says Judith Collins, author of Preventing Identity Theft in Your Business: How to Protect Your Business, Customers, and Employees. "Employees feel a good deal of relief," she says.

In the case of the VA, it seems possible that some employees will be relieved of their iPods.

--Ed Frauenheim

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