VA performance dashboard failed to protect personal data, OIG says


The Veterans Affairs Department wrongly allowed more than 20 employees and contractors access to veterans’ sensitive personal and financial information in a recent information technology dashboard project, according to a new report from the Office of Inspector General.

The security violation occurred in the VA’s Systems to Drive Performance Dashboard while it was in development last year, Belinda Finn, assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, wrote in the Feb. 13 report.

“We determined that more than 20 system users had inappropriate access to sensitive (dashboard) information,” Finn wrote.

The VA dashboard was being created to track cost accounting data. The agile development project was being managed by the VA’s assistant secretary for management, and the dashboard development group consisted of members of the management office, Office of Information & Technology and the contractor.

In March 2011, the development team populated the dashboard with veterans’ personally-identifiable information, including birth date, age, sex, race, ethnicity, county of residence, zip code, and financial information.

For the next 35 days, “more than 20 system users had inappropriate access to the sensitive data hosted in the Systems to Drive Performance development environment,” Finn wrote.

The report did not indicate how many veterans’ personal data was vulnerable, or what actions had been taken to inform them, if any.

In mid-April, access was terminated for most dashboard users, she added.

In addition to allowing the inappropriate access, the VA did not handle the user access requests consistently, and did not report the unauthorized access as a security violation as required, Finn added.

The problems were attributed to lack of awareness, failure to implement existing policies and poor oversight, Finn wrote.

“Project managers were not fully aware of VA’s security requirements for system development and had not formalized user account management procedures,” the report said. “Inadequate Information Security Officer oversight contributed to weaknesses in user account management and failure to report excessive user privileges as security violations. As a result, VA lacked assurance of adequate control and protection of sensitive STDP data.”

Finn said the improper access qualified as a security “event” but there was no evidence of a breach.

“While we did not discover indications of actual information security breaches and recognize the system is not publicly accessible via the Internet, project management should have reported excessive user permissions as a security event in accordance with VA information security policy,” she wrote.

Finn recommended that the Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology, and the Assistant Secretary for Management ensure that all project managers receive training on protecting sensitive information, along with two other recommendations.

VA officials agreed with the findings and recommendations.



About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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