By Mary Mosquera
March 24, 2008
The Veterans Affairs Department has made measurable progress in
establishing information security controls and a culture of vigilance, a
senior VA official said today.
VA has performed 40 percent of the 400 actions it outlined in its action
plan in the wake of a major data breach in May 2006, said Robert Howard,
the department's chief information officer, at an industry event
sponsored by AFCEA Internationals Washington, D.C., chapter.
The CIOs office conducted numerous assessments of aspects of information
security, management and technology to determine a baseline and how to
prioritize its resources and actions, he said. VA has also introduced
stronger controls as part of its plan to improve security and comply
with Office of Management and Budget directives for protecting
personally identifiable information. Specifically, VA has encrypted all
laptop PCs and requires physicians and other partners and contractors
who handle sensitive VA data on their own computers to encrypt them,
He added that the department has installed applications to monitor ports
for unauthorized devices, prevent access to the network if a laptop PC
fails to have adequate antivirus protection, and better protect e-mail
messages and attachments. The department also directed employees to use
only encrypted thumb drives provided by VA.
VA published Handbook 6500 to provide rules of behavior and other data
security guidelines for employees and managers. In addition to employing
technology to help with data security, VA has used education, training
and reminders to change the departments security culture to one that
promotes personal responsibility and accountability, he said.
Leadership is key in a tough environment. Theres some aggravation
associated with the security mandates, Howard said, adding that vendors
are making encryption easier to use.
The 2006 data breach was a wake-up call for VA and all government
agencies, he said. Even as VA steadily improves its information
security, its difficult to escape repeated retellings of its former
lapses in information technology security each time an agency loses a
laptop PC, he added. In the most recent reported breach, a researcher
from the National Institutes of Health had a laptop PC stolen from a
locked car trunk last month. It contained information on 2,500 patients
involved in a clinical research project at NIHs National Heart, Lung and
Blood Institute. NIH officials said the laptop PC was not encrypted.
Its going to happen if youre careless, Howard said.
Even as he underscored the progress VA has made in IT security, he said
the process has been slow because of the decentralized nature of the
department. The 2006 data breach also accelerated VAs move to a
centralized IT organization. Howard now has authority over about 7,000
IT personnel from VAs health care, benefits and burial administrations,
including systems development staff and the headquarters CIOs office.
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