On Campus

Laptop containing personal data of students stolen

Up to 28,000 Newfoundland students affected

Sarah Colborne-Penney is anxious that her two children may be among the 28,000 whose personal information went missing when four school board laptops were stolen recently. Police are investigating after an employee with the Eastern School District noticed the laptops missing Sunday from an administrative office in downtown St. John’s.

One of the laptops taken contained a database with the names, addresses, grade levels, health card and phone numbers of about 28,000 students at 56 schools, as well as the names of their parents and guardians. “I’m surprised and very dismayed at both the numbers of students involved, and the amount and the particulars of the information that’s at risk here,” Colborne-Penney, who has two children attending elementary school in the city, said Thursday. “You could really do some malice, if that’s your intent, with that type of information.”

The students affected by the possible security breach range from the kindergarten to Grade 12 levels, and are primarily in St. John’s and surrounding area. Eastern School District CEO Darrin Pike said the computers were protected by passwords and therefore access to the personal information was limited.

“It’s a concern of us,” Pike said in an interview. “This is not something that we wanted to happen or could foresee happening, and certainly we’ll do our best effort to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

It took the school board four days to report the thefts because officials had to do a risk assessment, Pike said.

“It took a while for us to find out exactly what information was on each of the machines, so that was a piece of the puzzle that had to be put together right away,” he said.

Const. Paul Davis of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said the break and entry into the office building wasn’t that unusual.

Thieves frequently target laptops due to their portability and because it’s relatively easy to sell them after wiping out the hard drive, Davis said.

“Today, laptops are a very much sought-after item for the criminal element,” Davis said.

Pike said health-care officials have advised him that access to individual medical records is not at risk, and that schools will be contacting the parents and guardians affected by the laptop thefts in the coming days.

One security expert said the security risk was low because the information contained in the laptop lacks a pragmatic value for most identity thieves.

“Frankly, I cannot really see much of a danger to those people whose information is stolen,” said Hasan Cabusoglu, a management information systems professor with the University of British Columbia.

“But it’s the kind of situation you don’t want to be in.”

Pike declined to say how the suspect or suspects may have gained entry, but said the break and entry was puzzling given that the building has security guards and security pass entry.

“You would look at this location as being a fairly secure location,” he said.

The school board has since tightened security measures at the office, he said.

Earlier this month, Memorial University warned students of a possible private information leak after a laptop belonging to a business professor was stolen.

The professor said he occasionally used his personal laptop for university-related purposes and that it may have contained class lists, names, student numbers and grades.

The Eastern School District manages 122 schools with approximately 44,000 students and 3,800 teaching and support staff.

– with a report from CP