Editor's Note: Last week, The National Archives - a repository of important government documents, including the U.S. Constitution - announced it had lost a computer hard drive containing large volumes of Clinton administration records, including the names, phone numbers and Social Security numbers of White House staff members and visitors. Officials at the Archives say they don't know how many confidential records are on the hard drive. But congressional aides briefed on the matter say it contains "more than 100,000" Social Security numbers and Secret Service and White House operating procedures. David Gewirtz tells us why we should be concerned.
David Gewirtz | BIO
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing
What if thieves broke into the Library of Congress one night and stole 10 percent of all its books? I'm not saying that happened, but it'd be a pretty big theft, wouldn't it? The Library of Congress houses one of almost every book ever published, so if someone broke in and stole one out ten, that'd be a lot of books to haul away.
But what if someone just stole a $250, five-pound hard drive, the size of half a box of Wheaties from the National Archives? Everyone needs more storage space these days and a nice, 2 terabyte hard drive sitting on a table might have been a juicy target for someone walking by - a janitor, an IT tech, a secretary. It's small and easy to walk off with, stick it in a book bag, a lunch bag, or even a trash bag.
It's not really a big deal, is it? So, somebody stole a hard drive. Happens all the time, right?
Well, it does. People steal things and hard drives are nice. After all, there's a limit to how many YouTube videos of farts lit on fire you can store on your own computer without some extra storage space. But when the drive that goes missing contains hundreds of thousands of records of private citizens' personally identifiable data such as social security numbers, as well as security procedures at the White House, it might be a bit more serious. That's what happened last week.
But that's not even the real issue. The real issue is just how much data is stored on these teeny-weenie devices and how much information might get into the wrong hands if one is purchased with the five-finger discount.
What does 2 terabytes really mean?
So what does 2 terabytes really mean? That's the size of the drive that was stolen from the National Archives. The best way to answer that is through some analogies. And I gave a hint at the beginning of this article.
The entire text content (the words) in the Library of Congress, from all books ever published is about 20 terabytes. The drive that was stolen is 2 terabytes. Put another way, if you had 10 of these drives, you could store every printed word ever published - and those ten drives would together weigh less than one big dog.
But what does that really mean? One way to picture it is to go all biblical. No, I'm not talking fire and brimstone. Instead, I'm talking actual bibles. The King James Bible to be precise. One King James Bible is about 2.5 megabytes - and a megabyte is a thousandth of a thousandth of a terabyte.
In other words, you could fit 800,000 King James Bibles on that stolen drive.
But what if you don't know of bibles? What if Harry Potter's more your speed? Well, you could fit 31,250 copies of all seven of the Harry Potter novels on that drive.
Still can't picture it? What if it was paper?
Stacked one on top of the other, those 800,000 bibles would reach 21.5 miles high, 3.9 times the height of Mount Everest, 3.2 times the greatest ocean depth - the height of 372.2 Statues of Liberty, stacked on top of each other.
Put another way, you could give a King James Bible to each of the residents of Crawford, Texas - and to another thousand towns the same size. Or, if you're in Kennebunkport, Me., you could give a full set of the Harry Potter novels to every resident - and every resident of 372 towns the same size.
I could go on and on with the fun examples, but you get the idea. You can store a lot of data on a 2 terabyte hard drive.
It's infuriating that security was so lax at the National Archives that a drive with that much important information got stolen. But the real issue is this - our data storage devices are becoming so large (in capacity) while getting cheaper and cheaper and physically smaller and smaller that this sort of data loss is going to become more and more common.
And while you can't easily walk off with a huge file cabinet of super-secret government data, it's apparently incredibly easy to walk off with a hard drive containing a thousand or more file cabinets worth of equally juicy, secret, important information.
The lesson here is pretty simple: security needs to get better. And that doesn't apply just to our government employees (your tax dollars at work), but to all of us. We keep our entire lives on these little electronic marvels. But they're so little, they're hard to keep track of - and when they go missing, a whole lot of information can go with them at the same time.
OK, OK, one more example. Lined up end-to-end, 800,000 copies of the King James Bible (the number of copies one of those hard drives can store) would run for 113.6 miles - or 66.794 Golden Gate Bridges lined up, end-to-end.
That's a lot of data to go missing. Keep an eye on your hard drives.
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Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.