Lost or stolen from the Census Bureau since 2003 are 217 laptop computers, 46 portable data storage devices and 15 handheld devices used by survey takers, including a laptop reported stolen in Seattle last summer.
Although the number of people affected isn't known, the Commerce Department reports that passwords, encryptions and other safeguards were in place. Nothing so far indicates a misuse of any information, according to the Commerce Department.
"The department takes very seriously these high instances of missing laptops, as well as potential breaches of personal identity data," Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said Thursday in response to an internal review of Commerce Department computers.
"All of the equipment that was lost or stolen contained protections to prevent a breach of personal information," he said in a statement. "The amount of missing computers is high, but fortunately, the vulnerability for data misuse is low."
Several other government departments in recent months also have acknowledged the loss of laptop computers containing personal information, in some instances for millions of people.
A request by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, prompted the Commerce Department review. In addition, a media inquiry — the department would not identify the source — came via a Freedom of Information Act filing, Commerce spokesman Richard Mills said in an interview.
Commerce found that since 2001 the department's 15 operating units had lost track of 1,137 laptop computers. Most, 672, belonged to the Census Bureau. Of those, 246 contained personal information.
"The American people deserve better from their government," Davis said in a statement. "You'd think we could share information by now. But we are still an analog government in a digital economy and culture."
Thousands of Census field representatives — many of them temporary, hourly employees — use laptop computers to compile survey data. The department said half of the laptops containing personal information were stolen, often from employees' vehicles, and 113 were not returned.
Census data collected during survey periods were downloaded each day and removed from the laptops at the end of the survey periods, making it impossible to estimate how much personal information may have been on the computers, Mills said.