The University’s Department of Public Safety confirmed
yesterday that they are working with the FBI to investigate the
unauthorized access and public release of consumer economic survey
data compiled by the University.

University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said the data — part
of a preliminary report of the University’s monthly Index of
Consumer Sentiment — was released to and published by a news
organization ahead of its scheduled release at 9 a.m. on Feb.
13.

The Index, an influential measure of consumer expectations about
the U.S. economy, is released by the University’s Surveys of
Consumers in two parts — a preliminary index released in the
second week of each month, and a final report that comes out on the
last Friday of each month.

“We’re not able to share any information about the
manner in which the data were accessed or what exactly occurred
except to say that security was breached and in some fashion, the
data was released in a way that was unauthorized,” Peterson
said.

She added that the University is not able to comment on whether
or not the breach was a physical break-in or a computer breach.

DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown, confirmed that DPS is working with
the FBI in its inquiry into the case.

“That would be part of the investigation — if it was
isolated or systemic, or whether it was hacking, or an accident or
a missed policy or procedure,” Brown said.

Several news sources, including Reuters Global Information
Company and Bloomberg.com, reported that Surveys of Consumers
Director Richard Curtin confirmed yesterday that the data was
published by Market News International.

Curtin could not be reached by The Michigan Daily for comment
yesterday.

But Bloomberg also reported late last night that Tony Mace,
Market News International’s Managing Editor, denied that the
service released the data early. Mace also could not be reached for
comment.

Data used in the index are collected through phone interviews
with about 500 people. Interviewees are asked 30 core questions, in
addition to several other questions that seek to examine public
attitudes about specific topics such as mortgages and credit card
debt.

“The Michigan consumer sentiment survey is considered one
of the government’s leading economic indicators, therefore it
is a leading measure of how consumers feel about the state of the
economy,” Peterson said.

Although a shift in the index can influence investors’
optimism and thereby affect the performance of stock markets,
Peterson added that there is “no empirical evidence” to
indicate that the index actually moves them.

The final result for the Index in February was 94.4, down
significantly from January’s level of 103.8.

Diane Swanbrow, communications director for the Institute of
Social Research which administers Surveys of Consumers, said each
year the surveys are funded by many sponsors. Each sponsor pays a
basic fee of about $4,750 annually, and receives a mid-month
estimate of survey data, in addition to the final monthly survey
information.

Swanbrow said the mid-month estimate for February was improperly
accessed.

Peterson said after the incident occurred, new security features
were implemented by various University departments, although
specific details about these features cannot be released at this
time.

“Ultimately the office making the security changes is ISR,
but I would say that organizationally we have several offices who
are interested in this and concerned,” Peterson said.

She added that such offices include DPS, the Office of the Vice
President for Research, and the Office of the Provost.

“It’s pretty clear that the data was accessed in an
unauthorized fashion and that is a pretty serious problem because
the integrity of our research data is of vital importance,”
Peterson said.

Swanbrow and Peterson said since the unauthorized access on Feb.
13, the following two releases — the final report for
February and the mid-month March release — were secure.

“As far as we know there have been no more data security
breaches,” Peterson said.

Sponsors receiving the mid-month estimates and final estimates
include corporations and firms who can subscribe to the service at
any point during the calendar year.

“This is something that the University overall is really
taking seriously, and the research data at the University is
something that we’re doing everything we can to make sure is
safeguarded,” Swanbrow said.

 

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