Protecting the American people has always been Job 1 for the federal government.

A myriad of federal departments — including Defense, Justice, Homeland Security — and agencies ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Food and Drug Administration are supposed to keep us safe from harm wrought by enemies, criminals, disease and other dangers.

As the world moves with increasing speed into the digital age, security of information must rank higher on that list.

Regrettably, the American public has seen how little emphasis the federal government seems to place on that crucial responsibility.

Hackers stole Social Security numbers and other highly sensitive data from Office of Personnel Management databases. And the number of victims is more than five times the figure of 4.2 million people the government initially disclosed.

The stolen data include criminal, financial, health, employment and residency histories, as well as information about their families and acquaintances. That’s 21 million Americans — federal employees, job applicants, military personnel, contractors and others — now left vulnerable by their government’s failure to keep vital information from leaking out of its computers.

This blunder is just the latest failure of the federal government to guard Americans’ digital safety.

Last year, unknown hackers broke into more servers at the U.S. Postal Service and obtained names, Social Security numbers, birthdates and other personally identifiable information on about 800,000 workers and 2.9 million customers. This spring, we learned that criminals hacked into an Internal Revenue Service website and gained access to 100,000 tax accounts.

Failings by private businesses, too, have led to the loss of credit card data and other personal information.

Suspicion in this latest theft is focused on China, a government with which the United States has extensive diplomatic and financial ties. So far, we’re told, there’s no evidence the data have been misused. But imagine the identity theft damage there could be if this data were in the hands of an outright hostile foe.

“It’s a treasure trove of information about everybody who has worked for, tried to work for, or works for the United States government,” FBI Director James Comey said.

“Such incompetence is inexcusable,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. He said Katherine Archuleta, who resigned Friday as OPM director, and her aides “consciously ignored the warnings and failed to correct these weaknesses.”

House Speaker John Boehner said the president must “take a strong stand against incompetence.”

But this travesty is more than a case of which bureaucrats’ heads roll.

The enormous amount of detailed information the federal government collects about its citizens demands a determined effort to protect the public.

The leaky pipe to this sensitive information needs fixing now. Because the leak is fast becoming a flood.

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