July 3, 2006 at 4:04 PM ET
We have a few more details on what happened to the nation’s most famous runaway laptop computer during those mysterious two months it was missing, courtesy of NBC’s Pete Williams. We’re talking about the computer and hard drive that were stolen from a Department of Veterans Affairs employee in May, an incident that made headlines because the hardware contained private information on 26.5 million veterans and current GIs. Last week, VA chief Jim Nicholson announced in dramatic fashion that the prodigal computer had been found, but details about the return were sparse.
NBC’s Williams has been able to fill in some of the blanks after talking to law enforcement officials investigating the incident.
Both the laptop and hard drive ended up for sale at a black market just north of Washington D.C., near a subway station outside the Beltway near Wheaton. We’re talking about the kind of market that is literally run out of the back of a truck, one official said. Fortunately, a buyer purchased both components at this black market, keeping the missing hardware together.
The male buyer, who has not been publicly identified, later spotted fliers posted at a nearby supermarket seeking the return of the equipment. After matching the serial numbers on the flier with those on the equipment, the buyer decided to turn in the equipment. No doubt, a posted $50,000 reward helped encourage that decision.
He had a friend in the U.S. Park Police who brokered the exchange with the FBI, Williams was told.
At that point, the FBI ran forensics tests on the equipment and concluded the sensitive data – such as veterans’ Social Security numbers -- had not been accessed. (Read more details about those tests here). Knowing more about the secret life of the disappearing hardware should make veterans a little more comfortable that their personal information was not compromised during the incident.
But not all questions have been answered yet. The obvious missing puzzle piece is this: How did the hardware get from the VA employee’s home in Aspen Hill, Md., to the back of a truck in Wheaton, about 4 miles away? And what happened during the trip?