Patients of University of Utah hospitals and clinics were breathing easier Wednesday after authorities announced that stolen data tapes containing the personal information of some 1.5 million patients have been recovered. The culprits apparently lacked the know-how or equipment to decode the tapes, which contained Social Security and driver's license numbers, dates of birth and other personally identifying information of patients treated at hospitals or clinics the past 16 years.
This is very good news for hundreds of thousands of patients in the region who feared their personal information had been compromised. Local, state and federal enforcement officials combined resources to recover the tapes and bring down the thief and other suspects. They are to be commended.
It is such good news that most affected people were wondering why law enforcement and university officials did not release information about the recovery of the data tapes until Wednesday afternoon. Patients who have been stressing over the data theft since mid-June would have appreciated more information sooner.
The FBI has custody of the data tapes. Agents will determine if any information was accessed. Otherwise, University of Utah officials have been tight-lipped about the arrests and discovery of the tapes.
We hope this will turn out to be a false alarm, albeit a costly one. Early on, officials estimated that the university would spend $500,000 alone informing patients whether their Social Security, driver's license or other information was on the data tapes that were stolen.
Two lawsuits have been filed in the wake of the theft, which may explain the university's reluctance to comment on these matters. The records were lost when a longtime employee of a university contractor, Perpetual Storage Inc., failed to deliver the tapes to the company's secure vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Instead, he left the tapes in a gray metal box in his personal car overnight. The box was stolen from his car. That worker was fired.
If nothing else, this episode is a cautionary tale for any business or government agency that collects personal information. They and their contractors must go to great lengths to safeguard that information. Likewise, these events should impress upon consumers the value of regular inspections of one's credit history and their right to ask businesses and government agencies that request personal information why it is necessary.