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eBay hard drive spills out governor's campaign documents

A bargain at $69

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From the files of IT bloopers comes this cautionary tale: a California man stumbled upon a stash of confidential data belonging to the Arkansas Democratic Party after its computer consultant accidentally sold a hard drive containing the material on eBay.

Bill Ries-Knight, also an IT consultant, purchased the 120 GB Seagate hard drive for $69. Although the drive had been advertised as new, Ries-Knight quickly discovered it contained scores of files created by high-level party officials while campaigning for Mike Beebe, who successfully won the state's governorship last November.

Among the files were documents listing the private cell phone numbers of political allies, including US Senators Blanch Lincoln and Mark Pryor and US Representatives Marion Berry, Mike Ross and Vic Snyder. It also included talking points to guide the candidate as he called influential people whose support he sought.

"Lula has been a very prominent member of the Labor Community and was a leader in the African American community as well," a campaign official wrote concerning the mother of one key person to be called. "I can't really offer any advice other than stress good things about Labor." It added: "This is the second tough call" of the day.

"I looked through the actual data and thought: holy crap, there's stuff here," Ries-Knight recalls as looked through the supposedly new disk shortly after it arrived.

The parties at the center of said stupid IT blooper were Bruce Sinclair and David Qualls. Sinclair, who is director of the Arkansas Democratic Party, owned the computer, until he rather unceremoniously dropped it and killed it. Qualls, who volunteered his IT skills to the party made a valiant effort to re-image the hard drive, but ultimately failed, we're told. Things only went down hill from there.

As payment for Qualls's troubles, he got to keep the hard drive, which no one bothered to encrypt in the first place. Several months later, while Qualls was away for National Guard duty, his wife put what she thought was a brand new hard drive up for sale on eBay.

"The moral of the story: if you have sensitive information, encrypt it," Ries-Knight said. Better yet, he adds, "use a hammer. You can't do better than to actually destroy the data."

Qualls, who now holds the post of the Arkansas information department's liaison on IT matters to the governor's office, didn't return phone calls seeking comment. A spokesman for the information department declined to tell us if the governor's office encrypts sensitive information contained on laptops. He asked us for our postal address and offered to send us a written statement.

For Sinclair's part, however, the incident was a wakeup call showing just how easy it is for unsecured data to leak in the most unpredictable ways.

"This is an unfortunate situation," he told us. "I will take proper precautions in the future so it doesn't happen again." ®

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