By Daniel Pulliam
June 8, 2006
The Veterans Affairs Department has suspended use of employee-owned
computers for official agency business and has limited telework at one
of three major divisions, in an effort to prevent security breaches.
The agency also is issuing a directive reminding employees that
failure to comply with department policy regarding the protection of
personal data could result in administrative, civil or criminal
penalties, VA Secretary James Nicholson testified Thursday at a House
Government Reform Committee hearing. The panel called the hearing to
discuss the department's response to the early May theft of sensitive
records from the home of a VA employee.
A June 6 directive to the Veterans Benefits Administration bars
employees from removing claim files from their offices to work on them
from alternative locations, such as their homes. From June 26 until
June 30, all VA facilities will observe a Security Awareness Week.
Nicholson said about 35,000 employees have some level of access to the
department's servers through a virtual private network, also known as
a VPN, for the purpose of off-site access such as at an employee's
Under recently issued policies, employees no longer will be allowed to
access the agency's VPN from personal computers. Every 30 days the VPN
settings will change, forcing laptop users to return to the agency for
updates and security screening, Nicholson testified.
But several outside observers have said that the data breach could
have been prevented if the VA employee had accessed the information he
needed over a network, rather than bringing it home on computer disks.
The GS-14 employee, who had worked at the department for 34 years, was
not authorized to telework, according to Nicholson, but he had been
taking data to his Aspen Hill, Md., home for the last three years. A
laptop computer owned by the employee and an external hard drive
containing the personal information of 26.5 million people was stolen
May 3 in what authorities say was a routine break-in.
VA officials took steps late last month to initiate the employee's
Nicholson said law enforcement authorities have apprehended a few
people who have committed burglaries similar to the one at the
employee's home, but the equipment did not match that containing the
While the extent of the breach expanded this week to affect the
records of 2.2 million military personnel in addition to nearly all of
the nation's veterans, Nicholson said the agency has its hands "around
the four corners" of the hard drive's contents.
"I am outraged at the theft of this data and the fact an employee
would put it at risk by taking it home in violation of VA policies,"
Nicholson said in his testimony. "We remain hopeful that this was a
common theft, and that no use will be made of the VA data."
Nicholson said the VA's chief information officer currently lacks
enough authority to guard against data breaches, but as of last
October, the department started centralizing its information
technology functions around the CIO office.
At the hearing, David M. Walker, chief of the Government
Accountability Office, proposed that all federal agencies conduct a
privacy impact assessment to determine how personal information is
collected, accessed and stored. He also recommended that agencies
ensure they are in compliance with the 2002 Federal Information
Security Management Act.
Walker urged lawmakers to consider legislation that would require
agencies to disclose breaches involving personal data, and create
additional requirements for accessing such information.
"There is a gap here when it comes to sensitive personal information,"
Clay Johnson, deputy director for management in the Office of
Management and Budget, testified that he believes the administration
has enough authority to prevent future breaches across the government,
but a review will be conducted to see if "extra teeth" are needed.
"I'm told that there are dozens of security breaches involving laptops
[each year]," Johnson said. "None of these involved 26 million names.
This is the 100-year storm of security breaches."
Johnson said it is the administration's policy that all sensitive data
on laptops be encrypted, but it's not always enforced. In the VA case,
the information on the employee's stolen laptop and external hard
drive was not encrypted, leaving it vulnerable to identity thieves.
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