Feeds

Berkeley hack sparks legislative backlash

New bill 'could cripple research'

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

The research community would lose its access to sensitive information from California's state-run programs under proposed legislation announced this week, a reaction to the penetration earlier this year of a university system housing personal data on over 1m participants in a state program.

But researchers warn the proposal could cripple a broad range of important research in economics and social sciences.

The bill, proposed by state senator Debra Bowen, would prohibit state agencies from giving researchers any personally identifiable information on Californians, including names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and addresses, said a spokesperson for the lawmaker, who plans to introduce the legislation Monday.

"Social Security numbers are the key to identity theft, and state agencies ought to be guarding them like the Hope diamond, not handing them out like holiday stocking stuffers," Bowen said in a statement announcing the proposal. "Sometimes I really wonder why common sense seems to be in such short supply."

The proposal was prompted by an incident on August 1st in which a computer intruder took advantage of a known vulnerability to crack a system at the University of California, Berkeley being used by Candace Howes, a visiting economics professor from Connecticut College conducting research into the effectiveness of California's In-Home Supportive Services program. The program pays a modest hourly wage to workers who provide in-home care for hundred of thousands of low-income elderly, blind and disabled people.

The compromised system housed a database with the names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and dates of birth of everyone who provided or received care under the program since 2001 - some 1.4m people, according to state officials and Howes. It's not known whether the intruder accessed the data, but in October, California's Health and Human Services Agency issued a public warning on the breach, and urged potential victims to take precautions against identity theft.

The state had shared the data with Howes under a California law that allows agencies to provide sensitive information to academic researchers under a confidentiality agreement. If the Bowen bill passes, such data would have to be shorn of all personally identifiable information first.

Professors: Important Research at Risk/

Howes doesn't downplay the intrusion. "It's really a tragedy that a very large number of mostly poor people, many of them disabled, have to go through the anxiety of worrying about this," she says. But she argues that researchers still need access to information like Social Security numbers because it serves as a unique identifier, without which the data could not be meaningfully analyzed.

Currently, researchers are expected to swap sensitive information for "pseudo identifiers" before working with the data -- the August hack attack came while Howes was performing that process, she says. But state agencies don't have the resources to do that sanitizing themselves, so the Bowen bill would effectively cut the research community off entirely, she argues.

"I think it would shut down a lot of really important research that's being done trying to make people's lives better, including research on poverty, income distribution, employment, health services, and anything in social services, including welfare and Medicare," says Howes.

Howes says that in August she lacked the expertise to know that her system might be vulnerable to intruders, and she now supports more rigorous security standards for researchers and universities working with sensitive data, including air gaps for computers housing information like Social Security numbers. "But I don't think precluding access to this kind of data is really the answer to the problem," says Howes.

Some corners of academia have already developed stringent methodologies for protecting personal identifiers, says political science professor Henry Brady, a director at the U.C. Data Archive and Technical Assistance center, which works with government census data. Brady advocates the creation of centralized "data enclaves" at every university, where sensitive information is pooled and guarded by those with information security expertise. "We know how to make these data safe," he says. "We know how to do things so there's essentially zero chance of anybody getting that kind of data."

"Often you need to know personal identifiers to do research of fundamental importance," says Brady. "If this bill passes we won't be able to do evaluations of all kinds of government reforms and their consequences."

Senator Bowen was not available for comment. A spokesperson said that her office did not extensively investigate the effect that the proposal would have on researchers, but that the issue might be taken up during the legislative process.

Carlos Ramos, assistant secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency, said he couldn't comment on the proposed law until it's submitted to the state legislature. Meanwhile, the FBI's investigation into the computer intrusion that sparked the controversy is ongoing. "They've not been able to share with us any results at this point," says Ramos.

Copyright © 2004, SecurityFocus logo

Related stories

Feds probe huge California data breach
DIY fingerprint idea thwarts ID thieves
Wells Fargo in ID theft flap (again)

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
FYI: OS X Yosemite's Spotlight tells Apple EVERYTHING you're looking for
It's on by default – didn't you read the small print?
Russian hackers exploit 'Sandworm' bug 'to spy on NATO, EU PCs'
Fix imminent from Microsoft for Vista, Server 2008, other stuff
Microsoft pulls another dodgy patch
Redmond makes a hash of hashing add-on
'LulzSec leader Aush0k' found to be naughty boy not worthy of jail
15 months home detention leaves egg on feds' faces as they grab for more power
China is ALREADY spying on Apple iCloud users, claims watchdog
Attack harvests users' info at iPhone 6 launch
Carders punch holes through Staples
Investigation launched into East Coast stores
Kill off SSL 3.0 NOW: HTTPS savaged by vicious POODLE
Pull it out ASAP, it is SWISS CHEESE
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Cloud and hybrid-cloud data protection for VMware
Learn how quick and easy it is to configure backups and perform restores for VMware environments.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.