Foreign hackers seek a soft target at VA

Testimony from officials and a forthcoming IG report paint a picture of inconsistent security measures that left veterans' personal data and medical records vulnerable, although some recent improvements have been made.

gloved hands

The personal information of veterans is at risk from foreign hackers, who have succeeded in breaching VA's IT security in the past and continue to try. (Stock image)

At least eight foreign state-sponsored hackers may have compromised IT systems at the Veterans Affairs Department, putting the personal information and medical records of veterans at risk, according to the June 4 congressional testimony of former VA Chief Information Security Officer Jerry Davis.

Davis, who is now the CIO of NASA's Ames Research Center, painted a picture of a security environment in shambles at VA, the result of what he described as "15 continuous years of unattended and undocumented material weakness in IT security controls."

The attacks were possible, Davis said, because of inadequate technical controls, including lack of encryption, weak authentication and easily exploited web applications. Attacks from foreign cyber-espionage units "continue at VA to this very day," he said.

Members of the Oversight and Investigations panel of the House Veterans Affairs Committee blasted the VA's conduct and aggressively questioned acting CIO Stephen Warren about alleged mismanagement of IT security. "The entire veteran database in VA, containing personally identifiable information on roughly 20 million veterans, is not encrypted, and evidence suggests that it has repeatedly been compromised since 2010 by foreign actors, including in China and possibly in Russia," said Subcommittee Chairman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.)

Later this month, the VA's inspector general will release a report that includes 32 recommendations for improvements to security policy. Testifying at the hearing, Linda Halliday, the assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, said that VA's systems are inconsistently managed. In March 2013, she said, her department found that the agency was "transmitting sensitive data including [personally identifiable information] and internal network routing information over an unencrypted telecommunications carrier network."

Network trespassers compromised the domain controller of the network, according to Michael Bowman, the director of IT and security audits for the inspector general's office. The intruders gained access to email, taking information from the senior leadership at VA. Perhaps most damning, Coffman said in his opening statement, is that VA leaders are aware that foreign hackers have compromised the network, but are not sure what was stolen because the intruders encrypted the data they took.

Against this backdrop, Warren offered context about the size and scale of IT at Veterans Affairs, with 400,000 users and 750,000 devices. However, committee Republicans pounded on Warren when he wouldn't specify the extent to which VA systems had been compromised by foreign intruders, where those intruders were based, and what data might have been stolen. Warren did offer to discuss such matters in more detail in a closed session of the subcommittee, citing the sensitivity of the information.

Warren was also called on the carpet for allegedly hounding Davis to sign authority to operate (ATO) certifications for more than 250 systems, before he was cleared to leave VA and take up his new post at NASA -- a conflict that FCW reported on May 1.

A memo from VA secretary Eric Shinseki assured the committee that "VA's security posture was never at risk" as a result of the extension of these ATO certifications. Warren, who ghost-wrote the memo on Shinseki's behalf, told lawmakers that the statement was accurate within the context of ATO certifications, but was not accurate with regard to the overall vulnerability of VA systems.

Republican members on the panel did not have much patience for such fine distinctions, frequently interrupting Warren's testimony with pointed yes-or-no questions and reminding him that his testimony was being given under penalty of perjury.

Stephen Warren testifying

VA acting CIO Stephen Warren testifies at a June 4 hearing.

Warren said that he has accepted the recommendations of the Inspector General's report, and is putting into place all of its recommendations. Based on prior internal and external evaluations, the VA in 2012 adopted a system called Continuous Readiness in Information Security Program (CRISP), and this will be fully phased in across VA networks by the end of 2013. Over the past year, the VA has trained 98 percent of staffers on information security, and the agency is only prevented from reaching 100 percent because of turnover in personnel, Warren said. He also cautioned against conflating risk with actual vulnerability.

"When a review takes place, the review is of what could happen. The existence of risk is not the same as removal of information out of the network," Warren said. While he could not guarantee that the VA systems or any computer system is 100 percent secure, he cautioned against panicking veterans about the vulnerability of their data.

"I believe we would be doing veterans a disservice by telling them there's a disproportionate risk. I would hate for this to drive folks away from taking advantage of the benefits they've earned and they need," Warren said.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.