Columbia U. notifies faculty and proprietors that their SSN and bank account numbers were exposed on the Internet for two years

A reader kindly alerted me to the fact that Columbia University sent out breach notices last week.   The letter, dated April 21, informed recipients that 3,000 current and former employees, as well as 500 sole proprietors had their names, addresses, Social Security numbers and bank account numbers exposed on the Internet. The  names of the banks or the routing numbers were not included in the file.

According to the letter from Jeffrey F. Scott, Executive Vice President for Student and Administrative Services, the breach occurred when a programmer erroneously saved what was supposed to be an internal test file on a public server in January 2010. The file remained there until it was discovered because Google had indexed it.  The university said it was informed of the breach on April 16 and took immediate steps to secure the file and remove it from Google’s index.  The university’s logs indicate that the file was not accessed between January 2010 and March 10, 2012, when it was first indexed by Google.

Columbia is offering affected individuals a two-year subscription to a credit monitoring service from Experian.

In a statement to, the university writes:

We deeply regret that this incident occurred and the imposition it has caused. We have arranged for affected individuals to receive a two-year subscription to a credit monitoring system to help ensure they are protected from the risk of identity theft.

Although an FAQ posted on Columbia’s web site says that this breach “appears to have been an isolated, unintentional incident,” it is at least the fourth time the university has had a breach involving exposure of personally identifiable information on the Internet. And it is not the first time data were available on the Internet for quite a while before being discovered:

  • In 2005, an Emergency Management Operations Team Contact List for the School of International and Public Affairs was exposed on the Internet. As a result, 98 individuals associated with SIPA had their names, phone numbers, emergency contact person and Social Security numbers exposed. Although the university believed it had fully corrected the problem, a copy of the list showed up on the Internet again in June 2006.
  • In June 2008, 5,000 students’ Social Security numbers were discovered on the Internet. They had been exposed since February 2007, when a student employee had uploaded a database of students’ housing information to a Google-hosted Web site.
  • In September 2010, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center disclosed that the names and clinical information of 6,800 patients were exposed on the Internet during the month of July because an employee’s computer was “inadvertently open” to the Internet.  For 10 of those patients, Social Security numbers were included.

A fifth exposure incident, in which the Social Security numbers of some of 993 doctors at Columbia University’s faculty practice were exposed was not due to Columbia University’s error but to an error by United Healthcare.

Related: Breach FAQ

Image credit:  Billy Hathorn at en.wikipedia

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