Collins wants answers on missing data about federal charge card holders

Sen. Susan Collins is drafting a letter to the General Services Administration and Bank of America asking how it will protect the personal data of federal credit card holders, following last week's revelation that the company had lost backup tapes containing personal information on 1.2 million federal employees.

Bank of America on Friday confirmed the loss of the tapes. It is one of five federal charge card providers.

Today, staff members for Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the Maine Republican wants Bank of America and GSA to detail what action they will take to ensure that federal employees's personal data is protected in the future.

Alexandra Trower, a Bank of America spokeswoman, said the company lost the tapes in December and has not yet recovered them.

"There has been no evidence that the tapes or the content has been accessed or misused, and we are presuming the tapes to be lost at this point," Trower said.

Sources said the company initially lost four of 15 tapes but found two of them. Trower would not confirm the exact number of missing tapes.

The tapes contain personal information on employees from 30 agencies, including the Senate, that use GSA's SmartPay program, sources said.

Bank of America has sent letters to current and former feds whose information is missing and set up a toll-free number for agency employees to voice concerns.

Company investigators notified the Secret Service when they realized the tapes were missing, and the two groups conducted an investigation.

"We had been in a quiet period during the investigation and just received approval from law enforcement officials to contact the federal employees who are affected," Trower said. "This has never happened before, and we will continue to monitor our customers' accounts."

The information on the tapes includes names, Social Security numbers, account information and other personal data, Trower said.

"In the hands of the wrong people, this could easily be used for identity theft," said one source who requested anonymity.

Besides backup processing, Bank of America uses tapes to archive account information and stores the tapes in an undisclosed location, said Barbara Desoer, head of global technology service and fulfillment for the company.

"Anytime anything like this happens, it is with regret," Desoer said. "We are very concerned when anything happens that puts our customers' privacy and security in jeopardy."

Sources said data on the tapes could not be easily accessed because hackers would need specific equipment, expertise and software to retrieve the fragmented data.

GSA, which runs the charge card program, estimated there are 440,000 purchase cards and 1.9 million travel cards in circulation. In fiscal 2004, government employees charged $17 billion worth of goods and services and $6.7 billion in travel, GSA said.

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