In my line of business, I have immediate and unfettered access to not only tens of millions of Social Security Numbers, but also most, if not all, of the personal information associated with those numbers. This being the case, I have first-hand experience with the pains a company will go through to protect this information, including policies and processes where we have sacrificed efficiency and profitability just to ensure such sensitive information is not misplaced or ending up in the hands of someone who should not have it.
Whenever we hear of that missing government computer or boxes of documents containing personal data that can't be found, it's very rare that any malicious action has taken place. In all likelihood these items are simply sitting somewhere in the back of a storeroom or under a conference room table just waiting to be discovered. But the good companies swallow hard and take their knocks. They issue a statement assuming responsibility, offer an apology (and perhaps some financial restitution) and, most importantly, MAKE DAMN-WELL SURE IT DOESN'T HAPPEN AGAIN!
What a company fears most when something like this happens is the ding to its reputation. If you're in a business so highly dependent on something like an individual's Social Security Number, the last thing you need is a hole in your armor leaking out all that data. Potential and existing customers alike will think twice about doing business with the company (I've sat in on the calls...trust me, they will), and the impact on the bottom line will eventually be felt.
And all this just because a laptop was misplaced.
But the beauty in being the government is that at the end of the day, no matter how many SSNs you publish to the public, you're free to shrug your shoulders, throw some taxpayers' money at it and simply wait for it to happen again.
The State of Wisconsin has allowed this to happen three times in the last year. Twice in the last week. If they fired the people responsible for it the first time around, they must have rehired them in another department shortly thereafter. Any non-government institution demonstrating the same neglect in its duty to protect an individual's information would most likely be facing bankruptcy as its clientele fled for the competition.
There are a lot of people who wish to trust the government with most, if not all, aspects of their lives. There are others who argue that any amount of government is too much. I tend to be somewhere in between, recognizing the government serves a purpose but hoping to limit its overall involvement in just about anything. But when I see it so profoundly fail at something I and my professional peers are charged with doing every day, and with relative simplicity, my confidence in the government at any level accomplishing anything, with either efficiency and accuracy, is pretty much lost.
Of course, it might just be in the back of a storeroom.