Data losses due to hackers, negligence

December 22, 2008
Think you've got problems? Think your employees have screwed up? Well, as my seasonal contribution to good cheer, here are some whoopsies that make anything you're facing seem pretty manageable.

Things do get lost. Car keys, insurance cards, eyeglasses, millions of electronic records ...

Data gets lost depressingly often. In years past, I've highlighted some of the bigger or more amusing leakages, but the pace of loss has picked up and I'm left having to report on just how big the whole picture is. Big. Bigger than you might believe. There's a good chance that some of your own medical or financial records have escaped into the wild.

Dataloss DB (datalossdb.org) lists most of the data releases, from tiny eyedropper ones of 300 or so to whopping gushers numbering tens of millions. Eight million records lost to hackers from Best Western in August; 47 million lost to hackers in January 2007 from TJX Cos.; 40 million to hackers in 2005, stolen from credit card companies. Many more losses aren't due to hacking, but to negligence: 17 million on a lost disk drive in October from TMobile, a lost tape with Social Security numbers for 12 million people from Archive Systems in May, nearly 4 million in a lost tape from UPS and Citigroup in 2005. If only the IRS could lose my tax file so easily.

Other times, we talk about a "loss" when we mean the item didn't go missing, but merely missing in action. An example is the toilet on board the space station. In May, crew members of the International Space Station noticed their john was misbehaving. That was a major problem, because there was only one. It's not like they can use the one at the corner gas station. Fortunately, the shuttle was going up soon, and the crew carried repair parts. In the meantime, the crew was forced to use plastic bags. Fortunately, NASA reports that it was only the "liquid" disposal that failed, not the "solid" one, because if it were otherwise, there weren't bags that could substitute.

A whole communications satellite went astray in April because the rocket carrying it into orbit stopped just shy of getting high enough and simply left the poor thing there. The orbit of such a satellite is crucial. A touch too high or too low, and the satellite doesn't work. Satellite misplacement isn't unknown, but here there's a twist. The owner, SES Americom, looked into salvaging the satellite through what's called a "lunar flyby." But SES had to give up on the idea when it turned out that Boeing owned a patent on lunar flybys. The patent is old and almost certainly wouldn't stand up in court anymore, but SES was already in a dispute with Boeing, and Boeing wanted to use the patent to put the arm on SES, so the communications company just heaved a big sigh and let it go.

But don't cry for SES; the satellite was insured. Cringe instead for future astronauts. The satellite has become just one of many thousands of pieces of space junk that can imperil space missions for decades or even centuries. Some is still there from 1958. These things can hit with impacts several times greater than a .357 Magnum bullet.

Finally, in August, the firm Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) launched a prototype rocket that never saw space because it couldn't get out of its own way. Rockets heading to orbit are built in stages. Blowing away a spent stage is tricky. Blow away too late and you stand a chance of dragging the upper stage backward a bit. Blow away too early, and the lower stage can keep driving upward before the upper stage pushes away, knocking the upper stage off course. The latter happened to the Falcon 1. But in September they tried again, and this time the rocket reached orbit.

See? Don't your own burdens seem lighter? You're welcome.


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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