SAIC: Medical records for 4.9 million TRICARE beneficiaries were stolen

According to police report, computer backup tapes had been left in an employee's parked car.

Science Applications International Corp. said backup computer tapes containing sensitive health information of 4.9 million Military Health Care System TRICARE beneficiaries treated in the San Antonio, Texas, area since 1992 were stolen from an employee's car Sept. 14.

Vernon Guidry, an SAIC spokesman, said the employee was transporting the tapes from one federal facility to another in the San Antonio area and reported the theft the same day to TRICARE and the San Antonio Police Department. But Sandra Gutierrez, a police spokeswoman, said the theft, according to a report filed by SAIC, occurred sometime between 7:53 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sept. 13 at an SAIC facility at 300 Convent Ave., indicating the tapes had been left in a parked car for most of the day, with the company reporting the robbery on the 14th.

TRICARE, in a statement posted on its website Tuesday referred to the incident as a "data breach" and did not acknowledge this resulted from a theft.

Guidry said SAIC is working with the local police department, the Defense Criminal Investigative Services and a private investigator to attempt to recover the backup tapes. There is no indication that the data has been accessed by unauthorized persons. In 2007, Air Force investigators reported that SAIC had transmitted unencrypted health records of military personnel and their families over the Internet.

TRICARE, in its statement, said the backup tapes contained a wealth of information on patients treated in San Antonio clinics and hospitals, including "clinical notes, laboratory tests and prescriptions" from 1992 through this Sept. 7. Military hospitals in San Antonio include Brooke Army Medical Center and the Air Force Wilford Hall Medical Center.

Other health care information contained on the tapes also included diagnoses, treatment information, provider names, provider locations and other patient data, such as lab tests run in San Antonio, even though the patients were being treated elsewhere.

The data on the tapes, backups for the military electronic health record system, also could include Social Security numbers, addresses and phone numbers, the TRICARE statement said.

"There is no financial data, such as credit card or bank account information, on the backup tapes," the statement said.

"The risk of harm to patients is judged to be low despite the data elements involved since retrieving the data on the tapes would require knowledge of and access to specific hardware and software and knowledge of the system and data structure," TRICARE said.

Doug Pollack, chief strategy officer at ID Experts, a Portland, Ore.-based data breach prevention and remediation firm, said the theft of the backup tapes in San Antonio confirms that most data breaches result not from cyberattacks, but from what he called "the stupid stuff . . . which has more to do with mundane human issues such as theft of a laptop or a thumb drive," that should have been protected.

One of the largest data breaches in history occurred in 2006, when a laptop containing information on 26.5 million veterans was stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs Department employee.

Organizations such as TRICARE and SAIC need to conduct periodic assessments, which would help identify the risks associated with transporting massive amounts of sensitive health care information in a nonsecure manner, Pollack said.

TRICARE said patients who believe their financial information could be at risk can get free credit report monitoring through the Federal Trade Commission. SAIC, in a notice posted on its website, said it has set up an Incident Response Call Center for any TRICARE patient with concerns about the tape theft and the security of their information.

Harley Geiger, a policy counsel who specializes in health care at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington nonprofit, said that free credit reports fail to address the key issue in the theft of health care data, "the most sensitive information about an individual" such as prescriptions and diagnoses, which can cause far more harm to a person than financial data.

Breaches of this type of data cannot be resolved by credit monitoring, Geiger said, and erode public confidence in the push to use electronic health records throughout the national health care system, Geiger said.