Online PFD filings halted amid possible data breach
Alaskans trying to apply electronically for 2019 Permanent Fund dividends on New Year’s Day, their first opportunity to do so, found the system offline as users said that it was inadvertently sharing other people's personal data.
Late Tuesday morning, Russell Wyatt of Anchorage attempted to file for his dividend. He first encountered problems with the site accepting his information, then got a bigger surprise when the site reloaded: someone else’s personal information.
“It makes you wonder if my information came up on someone else’s screen,” he said.
At midday Tuesday, a message on the website for the state Permanent Fund Dividend Division thanked people for their patience as the online application system underwent “unexpected maintenance.” The message was repeated on the division’s Facebook page. A previous post had advised that a New Year's Eve outage of the system would end by 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Wyatt contacted the person whose information populated his computer screen. That person told KTVA he did not wish to be interviewed, but said he was tremendously grateful for Wyatt’s honesty.
Other people commenting on the division’s Facebook page Tuesday afternoon also reported similar issues.
“I’m super angry now because who has access to mine and my children’s information???” one poster wrote.
The division’s director, Anne Weske, said that the system was initially shut down Tuesday after receiving about 90 applications, due to users experiencing significant delays in response from the website. Although the system can theoretically process more applications, officials took it offline until it was repaired.
“It’s very slow and not an enjoyable process,” Weske said.
Weske said staff knew of the incident involving Wyatt, but haven’t yet confirmed that other people’s information was being shared in the application system.
“We heard about that exact report, and that’s another reason (for the system shutdown),” Weske said. “I don’t know exactly how that would have happened.”
Division staff were working with state IT technicians Tuesday to restore service, but Weske said there wasn’t any estimate on when the system would be back online.
Asked about the extent of personal information shared due to the glitch and what was being done for those affected, Weske emphasized in an email Tuesday afternoon that any data exposures were limited by how quickly the application system was taken offline.
"Because the application was down most of the morning, only being accessible for a few minutes here and there, the chance of this occurring was significantly reduced," Weske wrote. "This scenario is currently being looked at, and we will continue to keep the security of information as a priority prior to putting the application back on the website."
There should be plenty of opportunities to submit applications, however, as the period to send them in – online, in person or by mail – extends until March 31 each year.
“The online security of all Alaskans continues to be our number one priority,” revenue commissioner Bruce Tangeman said in a press release. “We sincerely apologize to all Alaskans for the technical problems and want Alaskans to know we are working as quickly as possible to correct today’s complications and will have the application live once we are confident these issues are resolved.”
Janis Harper and Steve Quinn contributed information to this story.
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