USDA Now Reports Computer Break in; 26,000 Identity Thefts

USDA says hacker may have stolen employees' data

A computer hacker may have stolen "personal identity information" for

26,000 current and former Agriculture Department headquarters employees, agency officials said.

USDA announced the security breach shortly before midnight on Wednesday, nearly three weeks after it occurred. It offered one year of free credit-monitoring services to the potentially affected employees.

The agency said that its computer systems were illegally accessed during the first weekend of June. Officials said that at first they thought the personal information was still protected, but now they are not sure the data is safe.

At risk are the names, social security numbers and photos of USDA headquarters employees and contractors. The 26,000 names are equal to one-fourth of USDA's work force. The information was in the same database as work site information that is open to the public.

USDA said it contacted "appropriate law enforcement agencies" and its inspector general was conducting an investigation as well.

This marks the latest security breach of personal data in the U.S. government. In May, a computer with private data on more than 26 million military personnel was stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs Department employee. Identity theft and stolen laptops is a regular affair in recent months.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted on Thursday to give that department $160 million to pay for one year of free credit monitoring for affected veterans. Senators said the service, similar to what USDA offered, would cost $18.50 per person.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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