Encryption failures at VA put vets' data at risk

An IG review sparked by a whistleblower report finds officials approved the insecure transmissions.

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.

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