US agency error exposes 2.3 million disaster survivors to fraud

FEMA awarded contracts to 1,660 different entities in the last fiscal year, according to federal contracting data, covering everything from food to construction equipment. (AP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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US agency error exposes 2.3 million disaster survivors to fraud

  • FEMA awarded contracts to 1,660 different entities in the last fiscal year, according to federal contracting data, covering everything from food to construction equipment

WASHINGTON: The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) exposed 2.3 million disaster survivors to possible identity theft and fraud by improperly sharing sensitive personal information with an outside company, according to an internal government watchdog.
The US Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said FEMA had shared financial records and other sensitive information of people who had participated in an emergency shelter program after being displaced by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the California wildfires in 2017.
The Inspector General’s office said FEMA had shared participants’ home addresses and bank account information with the contractor, along with necessary information like their names and birthdates.
That “has placed approximately 2.3 million disaster survivors at increased risk of identity theft and fraud,” the Inspector General’s office said in a report. The name of the contactor was redacted.
FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said the agency had found no indication to suggest survivor data had been compromised.
“It’s not identified as a data breach. It’s oversharing of information,” she said.
Litzow said the agency has removed unnecessary information from the contractor’s computer systems.
But FEMA’s review only found that the contractor’s computer systems had not been breached within the past 30 days because it did not keep records beyond that point, OIG said. FEMA told the watchdog it will not be able to completely resolve the problem until June 30.
It is not the first time OIG has found that FEMA has mishandled personal information. A 2015 review revealed that agency personnel at a disaster-response center in California stored disaster survivor records in open, unsecured cardboard boxes. Investigators also found the agency mishandled data in 2013.
FEMA awarded contracts to 1,660 different entities in the last fiscal year, according to federal contracting data, covering everything from food to construction equipment.
The privacy breach is likely to prompt further criticism of an agency that was stretched to its limit in the second half of 2017 as it responded to a string of record-breaking hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.
In particular, FEMA struggled to deliver food and water in a timely fashion to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria killed nearly 3,000 people and left the island’s 3.7 million residents without electricity for several months.
FEMA director Brock Long faced criticism last fall when DHS determined that he had inappropriately used government vehicles to commute between Washington and North Carolina. He resigned in February, capping an 18-month tenure during which the agency responded to more than 220 declared disasters.


London climate protesters seek talks with government

Updated 35 min 4 sec ago
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London climate protesters seek talks with government

  • Some 831 arrests have been made and 42 people charged in connection with the ongoing Extinction Rebellion protests

LONDON: Climate change protesters who have brought parts of London to a standstill said Sunday they were prepared to call a halt if the British government will discuss their demands.
Some 831 arrests have been made and 42 people charged in connection with the ongoing Extinction Rebellion protests.
On the seventh day of demonstrations that have occupied key spots in the British capital, organizers said they were willing to switch tactics from disruption to dialogue.
“We are prepared to pause, should the government come to the negotiating table,” Extinction Rebellion spokesman James Fox told AFP.
“What the pause looks like is us stopping an escalation.
“We can discuss leaving if they are willing to discuss our demands.
“At the moment, we haven’t received a response from the government... so we’re waiting on that.”
Extinction Rebellion was established last year in Britain by academics and has become one of the world’s fastest-growing environmental movements.
Campaigners want governments to declare a climate and ecological emergency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, halt biodiversity loss and be led by new “citizens’ assemblies on climate and ecological justice.
“We’re giving them an opportunity now to come and speak to us,” Fox told AFP.
“If they don’t take that opportunity, and if they refuse to come and negotiate with us, then this is going to continue and this is going to escalate in different, diverse and very creative ways.”
Police said they had managed to clear the Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus junctions of protesters, who remain in place on Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square.
“We remain in frequent contact with the organizers to ensure that the serious disruption to Londoners is brought to a close as soon as possible and that only lawful and peaceful protests continue,” the police said in a statement.
Calling for an end to the protests, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said more than 9,000 police officers had been responding to the demonstrations, which had left the force as a whole overstretched.
“This is now taking a real toll on our city — our communities, businesses and police. This is counter-productive to the cause and our city,” he said.
“I’m extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime if they continue any longer. It simply isn’t right to put Londoners’ safety at risk.
“You must now let London return to business as usual.”
In the blazing sunshine on Waterloo Bridge, police lifted protesters and carried them off to waiting police vans.
“I’m genuinely terrified. I think about it all the time. I’m so scared for the world. I feel like there is going to be calamity in my lifetime,” student Amber Gray told AFP.
“I don’t even feel comfortable bringing children into this world knowing that that is coming.
“And I don’t want people in the future to say to me, ‘why didn’t you do anything?’“
Retiree Kathy Hayman said politicians were “ignoring and denying.”
“I’m amazed really at the lack of consciousness that they have and the lack of responsibility.”