FBI Investigating Missing State Department Laptop

According to the spokeswoman, State Department regulations prohibit processing classified information on computers that are not designed to handle sensitive data. But she could not confirm that the policies cover the encryption of specific files.

Last month, a laptop containing sensitive data about Northern Ireland was stolen from an agent of Britain's MI5 internal security bureau while he was buying a train ticket at London's Paddington station. The machine was never recovered, but the information it contained was understood to be heavily encrypted and believed to be secure.

In the U.S. case, the laptop was reported missing from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The bureau, which handles highly classified reports, was criticized last year by the department's inspector general for lax handling of "sensitive compartmented information" that the laptop reportedly held.

In response to this and other recent security breaches at the department, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security (DS), David Carpenter, to conduct a thorough review of security at the department. Carpenter has put together a team of senior security experts from various government agencies. The review, which began in March, is expected to be completed shortly.

"The safeguarding of sensitive information is the personal responsibility of every employee in the bureau," said State Department spokesman James Rubin in a statement on Monday. "It is crucially important to U.S. national security that our employees take this responsibility and take the necessary steps to protect the information."

The spokeswoman added that the DS information security staff is currently conducting a training and awareness program throughout the State Department. She noted that each office in the department assigns a staff member to serve as a unit security officer to ensure security policies are observed.

"We are committed to improving our security," said the spokeswoman. "As there is a possibility that classified information may have been compromised, this matter is now the subject of a joint FBI and DS investigation."

"The missing laptop is the latest in a long string of security failures at the State Department," said Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), who heads the House International Relations Committee, in a statement on Monday. "It is obvious that the department lacks a professional environment that is sensitive to security concerns."

Gilman was referring to a number of recent security breaches. Last year, for example, FBI agents found a Russian diplomat, whom they believe was a spy, inside the State Department. They also discovered a listening device in a conference room that the man may have been monitoring.

"Such security lapses are not acceptable," said Gilman, who says he will hold hearings next month to probe the department's security. "Whatever changes are necessary at the State Department to better protect our nation's secrets should be undertaken."

Arjen K. Lenstra, a cryptographer and vice president of the emerging technology group at Citibank Corp., said he believes most people at the State Department do not encrypt data on their laptops because it is a cumbersome process. He said he was uncertain about Citibank's official policy on laptop encryption, but noted that employees are encouraged not to let the machines out of their sight.

"Laptops are stolen all over the place, it is a risky business," said Lenstra. "I keep my laptop at home - it's too insecure to travel with."

Lenstra noted that passwords that keep thieves from accessing a computer hard disk are easily broken, and a thief can also remove the hard disk to access the data later. Even if the data is encrypted, Lenstra pointed out, most people select short, obvious passwords that can be cracked by password programs. "Users always make this stuff insecure," he said.

Lenstra added that only people using long passwords have a chance of keeping the data secure, but Microsoft Windows systems do not support the generation of long passwords.

"Unless the data is encrypted on the disk with a strong password," said Lenstra, "there is no way you can protect yourself."

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Ann Harrison

PC World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill


I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?