Records Management

Encryption failures at VA put vets' data at risk

weak link

An IG review, sparked by a single whistleblower report, finds that unencrypted transfers of veterans' data are widespread at VA.

The Veterans Affairs Department is in the hot seat after admitting to security violations that exposed sensitive information to hackers and possible misuse.

A March 6 review by VA's Office of the Inspector General revealed that the department transferred sensitive data, including veterans’ electronic health records and internal Internet protocol addresses, among certain VA medical centers and outpatient clinics using an unencrypted telecommunications carrier network.

Such unprotected VA data could be used to commit various types of fraud if intercepted. The use of unencrypted networks could also allow malicious users to get their hands on department router information to identify and interrupt mission-critical systems.

The OIG launched a probe following May 2012 allegations that certain VA medical centers were transmitting sensitive information over unencrypted networks. The data was transmitted among various VAMC networks using the South Dakota Network, which works as the local telecommunications carrier network, according to the whistleblower.

This practice turned out to be common. OIT leaders said they accepted the security risk of the potential loss or misuse of the sensitive information exchanged via a waiver. Departing VA CIO Roger Baker and Robert Petzel, acting undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, signed the waivers, which were created to postpone adoption of encryption controls in the near term, while acknowledging the risks with the lack of technical configuration controls, the IG report said.

According to the Federal Information Processing Standard Publication 140-2, agency heads may approve waivers under exceptional circumstances, the IG said. However, the computer security standards nonetheless defines appropriate security standards when organizations specify they will use encryption mechanisms to safeguard sensitive data.

VA’s unsecure data sharing could lead to financial and other penalties for ignoring federal laws that require health information be kept safe, the IG reported warned.

OIG recommended configuration controls be adopted to ensure encryption of sensitive data. The watchdog also recommended OIT personnel complete training focused on the importance of encrypting sensitive VA data.

OIT has said it will review technical network communications practices across the department and address the encryption issues.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • Social network, census

    5 predictions for federal IT in 2017

    As the Trump team takes control, here's what the tech community can expect.

  • Rep. Gerald Connolly

    Connolly warns on workforce changes

    The ranking member of the House Oversight Committee's Government Operations panel warns that Congress will look to legislate changes to the federal workforce.

  • President Donald J. Trump delivers his inaugural address

    How will Trump lead on tech?

    The businessman turned reality star turned U.S. president clearly has mastered Twitter, but what will his administration mean for broader technology issues?

  • Login.gov moving ahead

    The bid to establish a single login for accessing government services is moving again on the last full day of the Obama presidency.

  • Shutterstock image (by Jirsak): customer care, relationship management, and leadership concept.

    Obama wraps up security clearance reforms

    In a last-minute executive order, President Obama institutes structural reforms to the security clearance process designed to create a more unified system across government agencies.

  • Shutterstock image: breached lock.

    What cyber can learn from counterterrorism

    The U.S. has to look at its experience in developing post-9/11 counterterrorism policies to inform efforts to formalize cybersecurity policies, says a senior official.

Reader comments

Thu, Mar 28, 2013

VA has and uses encrypted electronic mail. Web traffic uses SSL. There are issues with PKI cert renewal that make most folks ignore it and the process has always been unwieldy. The technology is great, but people resist gadgety stuff that is not easy to implement.

Fri, Mar 8, 2013

To move HIPAA and senstive files and folders over insecure networks, one could simply encrypt the items themselves with the free and approved Encryption Wizard from the Air Force Research Lab. At spi.dod.mil

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group