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Looking for top-secret military info? Try pawn shops

Seems that undeleted information stored on discarded computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices has a habit of re-surfacing and biting its previous owner in the backside, especially if that owner is the U.S. military. The U.S. Defense Department now has to figure out how a an MP3 player containing 60 Army files that included the names and details of American soldiers found its way to an Oklahoma pawn shop, New Zealand broadcaster TVNZ reported this week.

A 29-year-old native New Zealander bought the player for $18 and found that it contained lists of soldiers based in Afghanistan, those who have fought in Iraq, and cell phone numbers for soldiers based there and at other U.S. posts overseas, TVNZ reported. The station said that neither the U.S. Army nor the American embassy in New Zealand would comment on the situation.

Other files, most of which are dated 2005, contain details of equipment deployed to the foreign bases and private information about soldiers, including social security numbers and note which of the service women listed are pregnant.

If the data does is in fact date from four years ago, it was likely stored on the MP3 player before the Defense Department's November 2008 ban on the use of thumb drives and other portable digital memory devices.

"It's arguable that this is the most serious government data loss in recent times given the potential security implications," a Tech.Blorge blog post noted Tuesday.

The Tech.Blorge post adds that U.S. military leaders, however, still have some catching up to do to surpass the British government lapses in securing sensitive information, including USB thumb drives containing personal details of prisoners and log-in details of 12 million users of a government payment site.

Mind you, military organizations and government agencies aren't the only ones who are careless with the information they store on portable devices. More than half of people who throw out computers or sell them leave sensitive data on their hard drives, according to a report, written by Andrew Jones, British Telecommunications's head of information security research, and Glenn Dardick, an assistant professor of information technology at Longwood University, in Farmville, Va., set to be published soon in the International Journal of Liability and Scientific Enquiry. Of the 133 disks the researchers obtained at U.K. computer auctions, computer fairs or through eBay.com, only 59 (44 percent) were unreadable.

eBay has a history of failing to keep banned and illegal items from being hawked on its site. The Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, last year reported (pdf) that F-14 fighter jet components, military night vision goggles, Army combat uniforms and body armor vests were being sold on eBay and Craigslist.

©iStockphoto.com/Ayaaz Rattansi

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