Mysterious Laptops Appear in Several Governors' Offices

Officials concerned that unsolicited computers contained malware.

by / January 7, 2010

Something smelled fishy in Vermont, Washington, Wyoming and West Virginia in August 2009 when the states' governors received mysterious laptops they never ordered.

Each office reported receiving three to five laptops in two deliveries of either Hewlett-Packard or Compaq units, according to several news sources. A National Governors Association bulletin disclosed that HP intercepted another shipment to at least one other state. The federal government is reportedly investigating deliveries in at least 10 states.

If the laptops were intended as bait, no one bit.

"There was a realization that we did not order these computers," said West Virginia State Police Sgt. Mike T. Baylous. Once the state police realized the delivery could pose a problem, the department sought federal action.

"We reached out to the FBI. We have a great working relationship with them here," he said.

Cindy Smith, an administrative manager in West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin's office, told The Charleston Gazette that no one in the state government knew what was on the laptops because they weren't turned on for security reasons.

Leigh Anne Manlove, acting press secretary for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal's office, told a similar story. "I don't think it was that big of a deal for our office because we knew we didn't order them," she said. "We didn't keep them."

Manlove added that her office turned the laptops over to Wyoming state troopers, who said they were originally shipped from Shanghai, China. The state troopers also X-rayed the packages and found that they didn't contain explosives, and the investigation was turned over to the FBI.

"They were drop shipped from Shanghai to Indianapolis through Hewlett-Packard," said Wyoming state trooper Lt. Klief Guenther "They were ordered with a fictitious credit card, not related to any Wyoming government credit card or credit card processing. So I don't know where the credit card information came from."

Now the case is in the federal government's hands.

"Once the state troopers did all that they could do with those computers, they turned it over to the FBI because the FBI has the capability to sic some tech-savvy brilliant person on it and find out more beyond just, 'Is there a bomb inside?' or 'Is there some nefarious plan that has to do with technology that was part of those laptops?'" Manlove said.

Guenther has confidence in the federal government's ability to dissect the laptops for anything that's malicious. Although Wyoming officials didn't find any evidence of physical danger from explosive, biological or chemical agents, he senses something fishy regardless.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that all these laptops ended up in governors' offices," he said.

In West Virginia, Baylous wouldn't divulge details about where the investigation is now and, the FBI is unable to comment on details about ongoing investigations.


Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.