In an October 3, 2011 Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filing posted on its Web site, SAIC described itself as

a FORTUNE 500® scientific, engineering, and technology applications company that uses its deep domain knowledge to solve problems of vital importance to the nation and the world, in national security, energy and the environment, critical infrastructure, and health. The company’s approximately 41,000 employees serve customers in the U.S. Department of Defense, the intelligence community, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, other U.S. Government civil agencies and selected commercial markets. Headquartered in McLean, Va., SAIC had annual revenues of approximately $11 billion for its fiscal year ended January 31, 2011.

The SAIC PHI breach, which potentially affected nearly 5 million individuals, was reported despite the fact that the PHI was contained on backup tapes used by the military health system, and despite, as explained in the Public Statement: 

The risk of harm to patients is judged to be low despite the data elements involved since retrieving the data on the tapes would require knowledge of and access to specific hardware and software and knowledge of the system and data structure…  [Q and A] Q. Can just anyone access this data? A. No. Retrieving the data on the tapes requires knowledge of and access to specific hardware and software and knowledge of the system and data structure.

The Public Statement goes on to say the following in another answer:

After careful deliberation, we have decided that we will notify all affected beneficiaries. We did not come to this decision lightly. We used a standard matrix to determine the level of risk that is associated with the loss of these tapes. Reading the tapes takes special machinery. Moreover, it takes a highly skilled individual to interpret the data on the tapes. Since we do not believe the tapes were taken with malicious intent, we believe the risk to beneficiaries is low. Nevertheless, the tapes are missing and given the totality of the circumstances, we determined that individual notification was required in accordance with DoD guidance. [Emphasis supplied.]

The lynchpin of SAIC’s final decision to notify all of the potentially affected individuals appeared to be the DoD guidance. In SAIC’s position as an $11 billion contractor that is heavily dependent on DoD and other U.S. government contracts as described above, it would appear that SAIC may not have had many practical alternatives but to notify beneficiaries.

SAIC conducted “careful deliberation” before reaching its result and indicated that the risk of breach was “low.” Had the DoD guidance not been a factor and had SAIC concluded that the case was one where an unlocked file or unencrypted data was discovered to exist, but it appeared that no one had opened such file or viewed such data, would SAIC’s conclusion have been the same? Would SAIC have come to the same conclusion as Nemours and decided to report? 

What is clear is that the breach notice determination should involve a careful risk and impact analysis, as SAIC asserts that it performed. Even the most deafening sound created by a tree crashing in the forest is unlikely to affect the ears of the airplane passengers flying overhead. Piping that sound into the airplane, though, is very likely to disgruntle (or even unduly panic) the passengers.