This may come as surprise to no one but the Census Bureau inadvertently posted on a public Web site the Social Security numbers of 63,000 people who received financial aid, census officials reports the Washington Post.
Although the Social Security numbers were removed from the site, there are still concerns of identity theft, although they know of no misuse of the personal data.
"We take full responsibility for this and offer no excuses for it," said Terri Teuber, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We absolutely do not think it was appropriate."
Officials delayed announcing the breach because they wanted to enable information-security officials to contact those affected and to contact "at least a half-dozen" mirror sites. Critics countered that officials tried to suppress the news.
"The bottom line is the government screwed up," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch. "What's really important is that they now try to rectify the problem. Thousands of research groups have copies of this site."
The breach was discovered by an Illinois farmer while surfing the Internet. Marsha Bergmeier conducted an Internet search for her farm's name. It brought up a link to FedSpending.org, a site created by OMB Watch to allow monitoring of federal spending.
All kinds of information came up including federal contract information, her farm loan amount, as well as Social Security numbers of 28,000 farmers. "I was in disbelief," said Bergmeier.
For the last 25 years, the USDA had been using Social Security numbers as part of a 15-digit federal contract identifier number.
"The USDA's action would seem to violate the Privacy Act," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology. "Social Security numbers should not be used as an identifier for account purposes."
The USDA is offering one year of free credit monitoring to those affected.