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Judge: Firm not negligent in failure to encrypt data

Federal court throws out suit attacking student loan provider for failing to encrypt customer database subsequently stolen.

A federal court has thrown out a lawsuit that accused a student-loan provider of negligence in failing to encrypt a customer database that was subsequently stolen.

Stacy Lawton Guin, a customer of Brazos Higher Education Service, sued the corporation on the grounds that encryption should be used as a routine security precaution.

But U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle in Minnesota dismissed the case last week, saying Brazos had a written security policy and other "proper safeguards" for customers' information and that it acted "with reasonable care" even without encrypting the database.

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The case arose as a result of a burglary at the Silver Spring, Md., home of John Wright, a Brazos financial analyst who worked remotely and analyzed loan portfolios. During that September 2004 burglary, a laptop with personal information about Brazos customers was stolen.

Brazos hired a private investigative firm, Global Options, to recover the laptop, but this was unsuccessful. The judge noted that there was no evidence that the database on the stolen laptop was used for identity fraud. After the theft, Brazos contacted approximately 550,000 of its customers to let them know of the situation and to suggest they place a security alert on their credit bureau files.

Even though he had not actually been harmed as a result of the theft, Guin argued, Brazos was required by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act to encrypt personal information and limit its disclosure. The 1999 law requires financial service companies "to protect the security and confidentiality of customers' nonpublic personal information."

Judge Kyle disagreed, saying that the house was in a relatively low-crime neighborhood and that the law does not specifically mandate encryption. "The GLB Act does not prohibit someone from working with sensitive data on a laptop computer in a home office," Kyle wrote. "Despite Guin's persistent argument that any nonpublic personal information stored on a laptop computer should be encrypted, the GLB Act does not contain any such requirement."