VA climbs out of a hornet's nest

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson heard nothing but the din of condemnation following a massive loss of veterans’ data last year. But little did Nicholson know that the misfortune of millions of veterans and his response would shake up the federal government and scare many federal executives into making data security a top priority.

Watching Nicholson in the hot seat last year sent a clear message, said Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute, which offers training for network and system administrators. The fear of public embarrassment that accompanies the loss or exposure of personal data got executives to act.

“What they have is the Nicholson effect, because it was his testimony, his picture on TV and in publications that awakened the rest of the executive class — the secretaries, deputy secretaries and CEOs — that this is going to be an area of personal embarrassment,” Paller said. “What it’s done,” he added, “is shifted the priority from, ‘Do it when you get around to it’ to ‘Do it now and make sure it gets done so I know it got done.’ ”

Since then federal executives all the way up to President Bush have pressed to make protection of personally identifiable data a priority, especially when that data leaves federal premises. But the spotlight remains fixed on the Veterans Affairs Department, and inside the agency on Bob Howard.

Nicholson issued the directives that ordered VA to strengthen information technology security and later to centralize IT authority. But it is Howard, the agency’s chief information officer, who leads departmentwide efforts to improve data security. Howard has initiatives under way to secure data stored on mobile devices, including laptop PCs and external hard drives, the types of equipment stolen in May 2006 from the home of a VA employee. Howard also is working to fill gaps in the agency’s practices and procedures that could lead to further unauthorized personal data disclosures.

New technical measures should be in place departmentwide by September, Howard said recently. Meanwhile, VA is testing them in its northeast region, Region IV. Engineers are testing measures for encrypting removable media and storage, securing network transmissions, providing better security for remote access and protecting e-mail and documents, Howard said.

VA has bought 25,000 encrypted flash drives. By September, unencrypted thumb drives will be verboten in the agency. “If you’re working in VA, you can’t buy an unencrypted thumb drive and think you can use it,” Howard said.

VA facility CIOs will issue the encrypted devices to employees based on need and their supervisor’s approval. VA will couple that policy with lock-out software that blocks anyone from using an unencrypted thumb drive on any computer on VA’s network.

“Until then, we’re still in a risk posture,” Howard said. “Obviously, we’re flying the plane while we’re trying to fix it.”

No more excuses
VA has a public-key infrastructure (PKI) that provides secure e-mail and documents. However, in the past year, after initial resistance, employees have increased their use of PKI. VA has issued nearly 100,000 PKI certificates, a 70,000 increase compared with the number it had issued a year ago. More recently, the agency began implementing Microsoft rights management software for securing e-mail and documents because employees find it easier to use than PKI, Howard said.

“There will be no more excuses for sending Social Security numbers [SSNs] in an unencrypted e-mail,” he added.

In May, VA activated network monitoring that detects when someone tries to send a SSN in e-mail and flashes a warning message that the number could potentially be a SSN. The same software monitors key words to detect whether a sender is transmitting sensitive information, such as a Social Security number, and can alert an information security officer.

VA also encrypted hard drives on laptop PCs that employees use for work when they are away from the office. Employees without VA equipment may still use their personal laptop PCs, but they must encrypt their PCs’ hard drives as VA does. Ultimately, as the budget permits, VA wants to provide encrypted laptops for all VA employees who may need to work from remote locations, Howard said.

In addition to all the new technical safeguards, Howard said, it’s necessary to be educating, training and “beating the drum big time that people just pay attention” to data security. VA network officials are clamoring for the technical solutions that are still being tested, Howard said, and they tell him, “We’re hammering our people as hard as we can, but you need to continue to push the technical solutions, too.”

VA now has a rigorous incident reporting and tracking process, Howard said. VA distributes weekly security operations center reports to network directors and others about security incidents. “The reports have been helpful because people now get embarrassed if they show up on a report,” he said.

However, agency officials recognize that most of their efforts so far have been stopgap measures and that securing all sensitive data at its source must be the basis of its long-range security plans. Officials want to consolidate VA’s data centers and have all data protected in secure data centers to which employees could only gain access via terminals, or stripped-down PCs.

Despite already extensive efforts to improve IT security, VA got an incomplete grade on the latest congressional report card that scores agencies on their compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act. Howard said he doesn’t expect the agency to do well on the report card until 2008. By then, he said, the public will start to see the effects of internal security efforts that take some time to gel.

On Capitol Hill, the House Veterans Affairs Committee was critical of VA after the data breach in May 2006. The committee conducted seven investigative hearings during the summer. A committee staff member, who did not wish to be named, said VA may be expending more effort on data security than other agencies because it was the focus of so much attention and criticism. “VA has made some definite progress,” the staff member said, “but they are not free and clear, and the vulnerability still exists.”

SmartBuy option
VA acted independently to buy encryption for mobile devices. However, some other agencies that sought a similar capability after the VA incident, including the Interior Department, have said they will wait for the General Services Administration to make encryption available at lower governmentwide prices on a SmartBuy contract.

Interior CIO Mike Howell said the department conveyed its encryption requirements to GSA, which incorporated them into a SmartBuy request for quotes. “GSA recognized Interior as having done the most amount of requirements analysis on this in the non-DOD space,” Howell said. In the interim, Interior encrypts files stored on laptop PCs.

As have other agencies, Interior has followed recommendations from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to strengthen its management procedures and controls, especially for incident reporting. That department has established an identity theft task force and implemented remote-access policies designed to ensure that Interior employees use adequate encryption, firewalls and antivirus software.

“If remote computers are not up to its standards, Interior rejects them in the connections process,” said Interior Chief Information Security Officer Larry Ruffin.

Spike in incident reporting
The seriousness of data security is reaching down to front-line employees, said Ruffin, who added he has seen an increased awareness of data security and privacy concerns based on the volume of incidents that people are reporting.

“We’re seeing when people lose their PKI smart cards and badges…or when an employee walks over to another employee’s desk and sees some Social Security numbers, they’re reporting those as incidents,” he said. “We’re really advocating over reporting, and we’re seeing a surge in that.”

Like Interior officials, Agriculture Department leaders said they will acquire encryption capabilities through SmartBuy, although USDA has encrypted some mobile devices, such as personal digital assistants, in specific programs, said deputy CIO Jerry Williams. The department also is taking another look at existing policies, updating them to fill gaps and requiring encryption on laptops and mobile devices that contain personally identifiable information, for which many officials now use the term PII.

“We’ll get some pushback with some of that,” Williams said. “We’re not just developing policies and procedures. There’s an operational facet to this as well. We’re looking at this fairly methodically, making sure we check all the boxes relative to creating a culture within USDA that’s conducive to protecting PII wherever it may exist.”

USDA has a cross-functional team to evaluate PII across the department and reduce or eliminate the use of SSNs. The team had a plan to do so, even before OMB released a memo May 22 that requires agencies to curb their routine use of SSNs.

The biggest problem is with older systems that store personal data, as USDA learned in April when it discovered that it had inadvertently made public the SSNs of about 38,000 grant and loan recipients. The data was publicly available by law through the Federal Assistance Awards Data System. The nine-digit SSNs were embedded in 15-digit federal award identifier numbers. USDA formulated the makeup of those identifiers decades ago.

USDA has been scouring its systems for the past year to uncover SSNs and remove them whenever possible. “Frankly, it’s going to take some time to get this done,” Williams said.

Most agencies say they face similar challenges in securing sensitive or personal data. It’s expensive to make data secure, but the consequences of not doing it are expensive, too. And the money for both typically comes out of the same account. VA is spending $20 million on credit monitoring to help victims of a large and relatively unreported data breach discovered in January at a VA facility in Birmingham, Ala. VA must pay for credit monitoring from the same funds it needs for enhancing data security.

“We’re worried about it because we’re draining the coffers,” Howard said.

VA’s IT innovation centerThe Veterans Affairs Department’s northeast region — Region IV — is where VA tests innovative solutions for its mobile data security program. Charles De Sanno, executive director of VA enterprise infrastructure engineering and northeast operations in New York City, and his team devise and test security solutions before VA deploys them departmentwide.

“This gives us the ability to learn the nuances, the gotchas and the problems in Region IV, so when we deploy in the other regions, engineering has the procedure set down straight and we can provide that to field operations for deployment,” De Sanno said.

For example, the engineering team discovered a problem with flash drives during testing for compliance with Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2, and De Sanno’s team had to perform some re-architecting.

— Mary Mosquera


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