FEMA exposed sensitive private data of 2.3M survivors of 2017 hurricanes, wildfires

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) potentially exposed millions of people to identity theft and fraud after wrongly sharing sensitive personal information of survivors of devastating 2017 hurricanes and wildfires with a contractor.

The Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General said Friday that the information of 2.3 million survivors was released when working with a contractor that helps provide temporary housing to those affected by disasters.

The information provided to the contractor, which wasn’t named, included names, last four digits of a Social Security number and how many people live in a household.

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It also contained bank names, electronic funds transfer numbers and bank transit numbers, even though such information wasn’t required for the contractor to confirm the survivors’ eligibility for housing.

About 2.3 million people suffered due to California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

The inspector general that FEMA violated not only federal privacy laws but Homeland Security policy by giving the additional information to the contractor.

The contractor also knew that FEMA provided the data they didn’t need, yet it didn’t inform the agency about it.

FEMA officials said that following the discovery of the issue, the agency was no longer giving data to the contractor. They added that after conducting a detailed review of the contractor’s information system, there’s no indication that the data has been compromised.

“FEMA’s goal remains protecting and strengthening the integrity, effectiveness, and security of our disaster programs that help people before, during, and after disasters,” FEMA Press Secretary Lizzie Litzow said in a statement.

“FEMA’s goal remains protecting and strengthening the integrity, effectiveness, and security of our disaster programs that help people before, during, and after disasters.”

— FEMA Press Secretary Lizzie Litzow

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The agency noted that it’s working with the contractor to scrub the data and mandated staff to complete additional privacy training.

Hurricane Harvey, a powerful Category 4 storm, slammed Texas on Aug. 25, 2017, killing 68 people and destroying much of the Houston metropolitan area where over 6 million people lived.

Irma, meanwhile, struck Florida and then battered Georgia and North Carolina, killing 129. Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20, leaving Puerto Rico devastated for months, which left reportedly 3,000 people dead.

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The California wildfires in 2017 burned some 1.2 million acres of land and killed at 46 people. The insurance claims topped $3.3 billion.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.