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

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by wk1003mike): cloud system fracture.

    Does the IRS have a cloud strategy?

    Congress and watchdog agencies have dinged the IRS for lacking an enterprise cloud strategy seven years after it became the official policy of the U.S. government.

  • Shutterstock image: illuminated connections between devices.

    Who won what in EIS

    The General Services Administration posted detailed data on how the $50 billion Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions contract might be divvied up.

  • Wikimedia Image: U.S. Cyber Command logo.

    Trump elevates CyberCom to combatant command status

    The White House announced a long-planned move to elevate Cyber Command to the status of a full combatant command.

  • Photo credit: John Roman Images / Shutterstock.com

    Verizon plans FirstNet rival

    Verizon says it will carve a dedicated network out of its extensive national 4G LTE network for first responders, in competition with FirstNet.

  • AI concept art

    Can AI tools replace feds?

    The Heritage Foundation is recommending that hundreds of thousands of federal jobs be replaced by automation as part of a larger government reorganization strategy.

  • DOD Common Access Cards

    DOD pushes toward CAC replacement

    Defense officials hope the Common Access Card's days are numbered as they continue to test new identity management solutions.

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