DENVER (CBS4) – Denver’s auditor is sending an alarming message, saying confidential client records kept at the Department of Human Services are at risk of being breached, and “This is a situation that requires immediate action to safeguard confidential information of Denver Human Services clients.”
CBS4 obtained a copy of the Feb. 11 letter that was sent by Auditor Dennis Gallagher to Mayor Michael Hancock. In it, the auditor warns that his staff had found that “there are real security issues in the way DHS is managing access to their records and I am concerned that confidential personal information of DHS clients has been and continues to be at risk.”
The Denver Human Services Department administers aid and services to thousands of at-risk clients like child abuse victims, the elderly and the poor.
But in the letter, the auditor’s office warns that former DHS employees who had left the agency still maintain access to the confidential records either electronically or physically.
Asked about the letter, Denis Berckefeldt, a spokesperson for the auditor, said the auditor’s investigation had found that about 50 former DHS employees could access client records long after they left the agency. Berckefeldt said there was evidence key cards from departed employees had been used to access rooms containing sensitive client files.
According to the letter, “Some of the physical rooms that former employees retained access to include the DHS records room, the Child Welfare Office, and the DHS Human Resources file room.”
“I don’t know how they can but they certainly shouldn’t,” said Berckefeldt. “We think it’s very serious. Any time unauthorized individuals have access, that’s a problem.”
Berckefeldt went on to say that there was no evidence any of the former employees had breached client files or done anything “nefarious,” but he said the city needs to better protect sensitive, personal information.
“These are the most vulnerable population in our city and their records were open to view if someone wanted to take advantage of that and that’s just not right. This is as serious a confidentiality issue as there is,” he said.
Berckefeldt said the records in question contain names, addresses, private information, and a plethora of information that is protected by federal law.
“If you don’t lock the safe someone is going to walk by and take the money. That’s the reality, so make sure the safe is locked.”
In the letter, Auditor Gallagher provided five recommendations “that need to be immediately implemented to ensure that information is safe. I hope you will react quickly to these recommendations and direct DHS to implement them ASAP to mitigate the risks that currently exist.”
But two weeks after sending the urgent letter, Berckefeldt said there had been no response.
“Apparently nothing has been done to fix it and if it has been done they have not communicated that to us,” he said.
But Feb. 26, the day after CBS4 began asking questions about the client files, Mayor Hancock’s Chief of Staff, Janice Sinden, sent a letter to Gallagher saying, “We take this information very seriously, and we are working diligently with the department to provide you a thorough and timely response. The department has researched the physical security issues your office raised and is currently delving into the electronic access questions.”
Sinden said the Hancock administration would have more answers by March 20.
Amber Miller, Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Hancock, told CBS4, “The public can rest assured that this administration is constantly working to track where sensitive data exists, who has access to it, and who is accessing it, and how we can better protect customers and employees information.”