Hacker Attack on Florida College Highlights Data Theft Issues

Modern life means modern legal issues. Home computers only became commonplace in the 1990s, merely 20 years ago. Since that time, computers have evolved to become a constant presence in our everyday lives. Most of the team members at our Panama City law firm have computers at work and home, plus at least one mobile device with similar capabilities. As computers became omnipresent, the use of computer data for everything from credit cards to government filings also became widespread. Along with the near-constant presence of the Internet, these developments have led to serious concerns about electronic data theft.

Nearly 30,000 Individuals Impacted by Data Theft at Local College

According to WJGH, computer hackers recently targeted Northwest Florida State College. State and college officials first believed the data theft only hit a limited number of employee files, but they have now concluded that the massive security breach involved confidential information relating to nearly 300,000 students, faculty, and employees. More specifically, the Department of Education on Wednesday said the hackers stole the names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers of all 200,000 Florida students who were eligible for the state's Bright Futures scholarships in the 2005/2006 and 2006/2007 school years. The theft also included over 3,000 employee files, including some records that contained personal, private financial information. Additionally, the hackers gathered approximately 76,000 files, including personal information data relating to students who attended the school. In a news release, college officials added that thus far, 50 employees have reported problems with identity theft. The personal information has been used to obtain personal loans and to obtain a Home Depot credit card.

Ty Handy, the President of Northwest Florida College, authored a memo to school employees on Monday that suggested the theft was a professional, coordinated attack involving one or more hackers. In a separate statement, Randy Hanna, the Florida College System Chancellor, said they are working to fully understand the matter and provide accurate information to the victims of the attack. Given the size of the data breach, federal authorities are joining the local and state investigators working on the incident. The investigation began last week, and the investigators believe the breach occurred sometime between late May and late September.

Florida Law on Electronic Data and Identity Theft

Florida law takes data theft seriously, and a range of legal principles protect victims. Identity theft, a problem that often results from data hacking, is the criminal act of using a victim's identity to obtain credit, apply for loans, or for other malfeasance. The Florida Attorney General provides a useful guide with information about identity theft and links to a resource kit for theft victims. The law also imposes obligations on all companies in the state that store computerized data to protect that data (see Florida Statute Section 817.5681). This includes a requirement that they notify any individuals impacted when their data is breached.

As a Panama City victim's law firm, we believe in representing our clients and also helping to educate residents of our community. Identity and data theft are serious issues and the laws on electronic information continue to evolve. We believe in fighting data theft on multiple fronts, including legislative change, criminal prosecution, and civil damages lawsuits. We recommend monitoring your credit reports, shredding any paper containing personal information, and using extreme caution when disclosing information online. We also encourage Floridians to continue to push institutions to continually update and improve their data protection systems.

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