The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development alerted students and parents this week that an external hard drive containing more than 89,000 students' personal information had been stolen from the department’s headquarters in Juneau.
State officials say the hard drive contained information about test scores from students in grades 3-10 who took state Standard Based Assessment exams in April 2010, and students in grades 10-12 who took the High School Graduation Qualifying Examination during that same month.
The information leak also affects several hundred students with disabilities in various districts attending schools during the 2002-2003 and 2006-2007 school years.
In addition to test scores, the Department of Education and Early Development says the stolen hard drive contains a slew of other information, including those test-taking students’ names, dates of birth, student identification numbers, school and district information, gender, race/ethnicity, disability status and grade level.
The department says the theft likely happened in early February, when a computer system that holds the student information was being upgraded. As a backup during the upgrade, the department says information stored on a server – behind two locked doors – was transferred to an external hard drive.
“The hard drive was stolen from us,” said Eric Fry, a public information officer with the Department of Education and Early Development. “It was stolen at the time when we were having other small pieces of small electronic equipment being stolen, like headphones and thumb drives.”
Fry says that leads the department to think that the thief simply wanted the equipment, and not the information that was on the hard drive. He says it’s likely the thief doesn’t even know about the information on it.
“We notified the police and the state security office and they're still looking into it,” said Fry. “We haven't heard back from them.”
Fry says there is a silver lining in the theft, in that the student data isn’t overtly visible to anyone simply opening up the hard drive, unless someone does “a particular set of procedures.”
“A good deal of information about students is contained in numerical codes, not words,” said Fry. “For example, if you list a student and his ethnicity, that ethnicity isn't a word. It isn't 'Caucasian' or 'Native' or something like that, it's a numerical code which would have no meaning to a layman.”
While the hard drive contains students names and dates of birth, it does not contain Social Security numbers -- a piece of information frequently used by identity thieves.
“It’s extremely unlikely that this will come back to haunt any of the students,” Fry said. “You can't steal their identity by knowing their reading score on a test.”
Fry said the department won’t be putting student information on external hard drives in the future. Parents who would like to change their student’s identification number can call the department at 465-8727.
Contact Jason Lamb at firstname.lastname@example.org