How the VA deals with data breaches

Created after the theft of a department-owned laptop computer in 2006, VA's Data Breach Core Team analyzes potential breaches every week.

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Privacy is paramount in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and a small interagency team plays a large role in how the federal government responds to potential breaches in the privacy of its veterans.

Each week, at least some of the Data Breach Core Team's 30 members gather to pore over suspected data breaches reported through the agency's Privacy Security Event Tracking System, determining whether an incident is an actual breach. The DBCT assigns a risk categorization – low, medium or high – to each potential breach and determines whether VA should offer credit monitoring to veterans in each case.

The weekly sessions highlight a transformation the agency went through following the disastrous data breach in 2006 that might have exposed the personal data of 26 million veterans, according to John Oswalt, VA's associate deputy assistant secretary for privacy, policy and incident response.

The 2006 breach – the result of the theft of a VA analyst's laptop and external drive, which were eventually recovered intact – cost taxpayers millions of dollars and damaged VA's public reputation and its trust with the veterans it was charged to protect. It also highlighted internal inadequacies in how VA reported and responded to potential breaches – then-VA Secretary James Nicholson was not notified about the incident until three weeks after it took place.

The DBCT was created shortly after scathing reviews by the VA Office of Inspector General and the press in an effort to correct internal reporting errors, beginning in 2007. It shifts the burden of data breach investigation away from individual component agencies to an interagency team less likely to be influenced by internal pressures. This was part of a series of privacy-centered moves that included mandating potential data breaches be reported within an hour.

"After 2006, we embarked on a cultural transformation on how we deal with privacy," Oswalt told FCW. "The beauty of the DBCT is that it approaches data breaches from a holistic standpoint – from one VA standpoint with the veteran in mind. We're making sure we can do all we can to lessen the impact on veterans and find out exactly what happened."

The DBCT is comprised of members of the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, the Office of General Counsel, staff attorneys, the Office of Public Affairs, the Office of Congressional Affairs, the Board of Veterans Appeals, human resources staff and the office of Acquisition and Logistics.

Risk assessments are made based on criteria like how long the personal identifiable information (PII) was exposed and what kind of information it was. An example of a low-risk privacy breach, Oswalt said, could be a VA employee getting sidetracked for a few minutes after printing off a list of names, social security numbers and dates of birth of veterans to a shared printer that another employee picks up and reports. Since the event occurred at a guarded federal building and information was retrieved quickly, Oswalt said the DBCT would classify it as low risk.

An employee disposing of old records in a VA dumpster without shredding them could expose those documents to a wider audience, constituting a medium-risk assessment, Oswalt said. Errors in handling paper records are by far the most common at VA, and the vast majority of those kinds of errors result in a low- or medium-risk rating.

The loss or theft of an unencrypted VA laptop would constitute a high-risk assessment from DBCT, though Oswalt said instances rising to that level are far less common. Major enterprise-wide electronic breaches like hacking or electronic records theft are handled by the Network Security Operations Center.

Beyond risk assessment, the DBCT examines each breach to determine whether the VA should provide credit monitoring services to veterans implicated. These decisions are particularly important, Oswalt said, because each potential breach can involve multiple veterans. When the DBCT determines credit monitoring services should be implemented, a veteran is sent a voucher he or she can redeem to attain a credit report.

"We're the determining body when it comes down to whether VA will offer credit monitoring services," Oswalt said.

The number of offered credit monitoring vouchers dropped slightly from fiscal 2010 to 2011, 28,369 to 26,980. Then in 2012, it took a sharper drop, to 16,160 -- a sign that there have been fewer data breaches that compromise veterans' PPI in more recent times. Interestingly, veterans redeem the vouchers only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the time.

Oswalt said the DBCT can make recommendations to component agencies within VA if it notices trending issues, although it is not required to. It might also make recommendations regarding how an employee or department should remediate following an incident.

The DBCT catalogs all its investigations in monthly reports to Congress that are also made available to the public through the VA's website.

"We're trying to make privacy and security matters part of the people's daily work hygiene," Oswalt said.

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