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White House orders better security for sensitive data

Office of Management and Budget gives agencies 45 days to comply with guidelines for laptops, handhelds.

The U.S. government has 45 days to upgrade its security standards for protecting the data it holds on millions of U.S. citizens.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which operates under the White House, sent a "Memorandum for the Heads of Departments and Agencies" (click here for PDF) on June 23 requesting the implementation of new security standards and practices concerning data.

The request comes in the wake of several embarrassing government security breaches due to losses of laptops holding sensitive information. Many of the incidents resulted in an accidental release of Social Security numbers and dates of birth--two key pieces of data used in identity theft.

Perhaps the worst breach took place May 22, when the Department of Veterans Affairs lost the personal data of 26.5 million U.S. veterans and their spouses after a laptop was stolen from the home of a government employee. Other government agencies that have recently lost sensitive data include the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Agriculture and .

The new standards include encryption for all data on notebooks and mobile devices unless it is specifically classified as "nonsensitive" in writing by a Deputy Secretary or other empowered superior. Agencies must additionally require two forms of authentication to access the information, such as a password and key card system.

Government employees must also employ "time-outs" that require the user to re-authenticate every 30 minutes for both remote access and mobile devices. All data downloads must be logged, and sensitive data may remain on a laptop or handheld for a maximum of 90 days, unless specifically permitted for a longer period. The memo includes a list of guidelines from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) on protecting information.

While the new procedures are presented as a "recommendation" from the OMB, Deputy Director Clay Johnson III adds that the office will be sending government inspectors to see that the request is properly and promptly carried out. The OMB has provided a flowchart illustrating the steps it would like agencies to take, in addition to procedural lists.

"Most departments and agencies have these measures already in place," Johnson said in the memo. "We intend to work with the Inspectors General community to review these items as well as the checklist to ensure we are properly safeguarding the information the American taxpayer has entrusted to us. Please ensure these safeguards have been reviewed and are in place within the next 45 days."

In less bureaucratic terms, the sentiment seems to be: Get it done, and soon.

Data loss has been a point of contention in the private sector as well. Many companies, or their affiliates, have lost customers' personal data. In June, approximately 243,000 customers were put at risk via an Ernst & Young laptop loss, and

In March, data on 200,000 Hewlett-Packard employees was affected by a loss. Ohio University and the University of Southern California have also recently experienced breaches of information.