VA has made progress in data security

The Veterans Affairs Department has made measurable progress in establishing information security controls and a culture of vigilance, a senior VA official said today.

VA has performed 40 percent of the 400 actions it outlined in its action plan in the wake of a major data breach in May 2006, said Robert Howard, the department's chief information officer, at an industry event sponsored by AFCEA International’s Washington, D.C., chapter.

The CIO’s office conducted numerous assessments of aspects of information security, management and technology to determine a baseline and how to prioritize its resources and actions, he said. VA has also introduced stronger controls as part of its plan to improve security and comply with Office of Management and Budget directives for protecting personally identifiable information. Specifically, VA has encrypted all laptop PCs and requires physicians and other partners and contractors who handle sensitive VA data on their own computers to encrypt them, Howard said.

He added that the department has installed applications to monitor ports for unauthorized devices, prevent access to the network if a laptop PC fails to have adequate antivirus protection, and better protect e-mail messages and attachments. The department also directed employees to use only encrypted thumb drives provided by VA.

VA published Handbook 6500 to provide rules of behavior and other data security guidelines for employees and managers. In addition to employing technology to help with data security, VA has used education, training and reminders to change the department’s security culture to one that promotes personal responsibility and accountability, he said.

“Leadership is key in a tough environment. There’s some aggravation associated with the security mandates,” Howard said, adding that vendors are making encryption easier to use.

The 2006 data breach was a wake-up call for VA and all government agencies, he said. Even as VA steadily improves its information security, it’s difficult to escape repeated retellings of its former lapses in information technology security each time an agency loses a laptop PC, he added. In the most recent reported breach, a researcher from the National Institutes of Health had a laptop PC stolen from a locked car trunk last month. It contained information on 2,500 patients involved in a clinical research project at NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. NIH officials said the laptop PC was not encrypted.

“It’s going to happen if you’re careless,” Howard said.

Even as he underscored the progress VA has made in IT security, he said the process has been slow because of the decentralized nature of the department. The 2006 data breach also accelerated VA’s move to a centralized IT organization. Howard now has authority over about 7,000 IT personnel from VA’s health care, benefits and burial administrations, including systems development staff and the headquarters CIO’s office.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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