How Thousands of Computers Bought With Your Money Have Disappeared

Computer experts say the state should be worried---very worried---about thousands of computers which no one can find.

Tuesday, NBC5 Investigates showed how thousands of items worth millions of dollars had gone missing from state offices. All told, nearly $15 million in state property classified as missing in official reports. Among the missing items, scores of computers which can’t be located at virtually every state agency.

“That’s scary,” said Yaniv Schiff, a security expert with the Chicago firm Forensicon. “If you don’t know where your computers are, you don’t know where your data is.”

Indeed, NBC5 has discovered that the Illinois Auditor General’s office has repeatedly warned state agencies about losing track of computers. Over the last few years, the Auditor’s office counted a sample total of 2,436 computers missing from eleven state agencies. The machines were valued at more than $3.5 million. But the larger issue was the potential loss of sensitive data on thousands of Illinois citizens.

One agency was warned that its missing computers “could possibly have confidential information stored on them.” Still another was told that “The Department had not protected all of its computers with encryption software, increasing the risk that confidential or personal information could be exposed.”

After promising to do better, that same agency, in its most recent inventory report, admitted 42 more computers could not be located, 21 were lost, and one laptop had been stolen.

“You have absolutely no idea whose hands that data is now in,” Schiff said. “Are they being stolen by criminal organizations, or are they simply being misplaced, and somebody on the CTA El platform picks it up and finds health care records?”

Part of the problem is the paper-based inventory system which the state has utilized for decades. Actually 38 multiple inventory systems, which Chief Information Officer Hardik Bhatt says were grossly antiquated.

“I would call it technology 2000 years old,” he said. “Paper was invented 2000 years ago!”

Remember, Bhatt works for the State of Illinois. But he says he found the inventory tracking systems appalling when he arrived last year, with a mandate from governor Bruce Rauner to get the state’s house in order.

“Any number is a big number for us,” he said. “We should not be wasting any taxpayer resources. We should have been able to account for each of those assets that we have.”

Editor's Note: In a previous video version of this story, NBC5 Investigates cited the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services as one of a few state agencies that did not respond to our Freedom of Information Act request, asking for its itemized listing of missing state property. In fact, DCFS did respond -- when we first made this request in the fall of 2015 -- with all of its inventory and property records. NBC5 regrets the error.

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