WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Labor Department posted sensitive economic data on its website before Thursday's scheduled release time.

An analyst for a financial research firm saw the report on unemployment benefits shortly after 8 a.m. Eastern Thursday and sent a note to clients about it at 8:10 a.m. The official release time is 8:30 a.m.

As it turns out, the report was available to see even earlier than that.

In a statement, Labor officials said the data was placed in an automated software system and inadvertently published on the department's Employment and Training website at 5:10 p.m. Eastern Wednesday.

Thursday's report showed weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell last week by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 361,000. The report is closely guarded because it can cause swings in the financial markets.

The early release comes as the department implements changes to make the release of economic data more secure. The department provides economic data early to news organizations so they can prepare stories before the scheduled release time.

Federal criminal and civil investigators have looked into possible leaks of economic data in the past four years, the department said in a report released last month. The report noted that high-speed traders can profit from having the data even a split-second before its public release.

On Thursday, Doug Brain, an analyst at the financial research firm Stone & McCarthy, was at his desk in Princeton, N.J. when he discovered the weekly unemployment report available almost 30 minutes ahead of its scheduled release time.

Brain then sent a note to the firm's clients, which include large Wall Street banks and other institutional investors.

"I couldn't believe it," said Brain. "I didn't do anything unusual."

Journalists are allowed to see the unemployment benefits report, as well as other economic data, 30 minutes before it is released to the public. The extra time is provided so reporters can prepare and edit articles that are then published once the data is public.

But reporters must go to a "lock-up room" at the Labor Department in order to get an early look. Before the reports are distributed, Internet and phone access is suspended. Reporters are also required to turn in their mobile phones.

The department this spring revoked early access to the economic data for a handful of companies that deliver data to high-speed traders but produce little or no original news content. It also required all news organizations to install new equipment in the lockup room.