Criminal probe led gov't to change release of data

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Federal criminal and civil investigators looked into possible leaks of economic data that the government provides early to news organizations, according to a report released Tuesday by the Labor Department.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, the FBI and the Labor Department's inspector general are among authorities that reviewed possible leaks over the past four years, according to the report. It's unclear whether any of their probes are continuing or have resulted in any charges. None of the three agencies would comment.

The probes are part of a broader investigation of insider trading by the SEC and federal law enforcement authorities. Their investigation has resulted in dozens of charges and several high-profile convictions, mostly of hedge fund employees.

The Labor Department this spring revoked early access to the economic data for a handful of companies that deliver data to high-speed traders but produce little or no original news content. Among them is Need to Know News, part of Deutsche Borse Group, which produces no original news content. The company offers audio and computer delivery of economic data, according to its website.

Labor also revoked access for RTTNews, among others.

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Those decisions followed the Labor Department's review of its security policies. The department looked into which news organizations should or should not be allowed to receive early access to economic data. Officials said their decisions were based on whether a news outlet produces original reporting and distributes it to a wide audience.

The report released Tuesday was conducted for the Labor Department by Sandia National Laboratories. The report says Labor officials raised concerns about self-identified news organizations that primarily serve high-speed stock traders. It notes that high-speed traders can profit from having the data even a split-second before its public release.

The report outlines ways technology could be used to bypass security and prematurely leak the data. It describes several categories of potential security breaches, including hidden transmitters in computer equipment and compromised phone or data lines.

Recipients of such data could have made money by trading improperly on the information. The report didn't say that any data had actually been leaked.

Sandia's report says that if a data leak did occur, the press room isn't the most probable source. It says a more likely cause would be someone hacking into the Labor Department's computers. Sandia was not asked to investigate that possibility and reached no conclusions about it.

The investigations have led the Labor Department to tighten security surrounding its release of economic data, including the monthly employment report. The data are given to reporters during "lock-ups" in which they have time to review the data and prepare news stories before the information is publicly released.

The room at the Labor Department where news organizations, including The Associated Press, receive the data early, was supposed to be secure. Reporters gave up their cell phones, temporarily lost Internet access and couldn't leave the room before the data are made public. But the system still suffered from security flaws, according to Sandia's report.

The department says it commissioned a report after it was approached by agencies concerned that the data might be vulnerable to leaks.

Sandia is a government contractor that safeguards the nation's nuclear secrets and performs other security services. Many details of its report were blacked out. But the report recommends ways to prevent leaks.

Since Sandia completed its report in August, department officials have been crafting the new security measures and rolling them out. Reporters can now bring only paper and pens into the lockups. Access to communications equipment has been restricted.

A Labor Department spokesman referred inquiries to the department's inspector general.

Spokesmen for the SEC, FBI and DOL inspector general declined to comment on the report.


Daniel Wagner can be reached at