Chief of the Year: Information Security

On June 15, Government Executive is featuring the government's chief officers of finance, human capital, information and information security in a special issue of the magazine. This year, for the second time, we've identified individuals to highlight as Chiefs of the Year. In challenging times, these individuals are leading the way in coming up with innovative solutions, providing a shining example to their peers.

Jerry Davis
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Information Security
Veterans Affairs

Shortly after breaking new ground at NASA by demanding real-time monitoring of every computer system for threats, Jerry Davis, the space agency's security chief, assumed an even greater challenge: to accomplish the same thing at the Veterans Affairs Department, which has the largest civilian workforce and a reputation for losing laptops. Observers say Davis has risen to the challenge since taking office in August 2010 as VA's deputy assistant secretary for information security.

Veterans Affairs is now continuously poring over the security controls on all desktops using digital tools and is starting to obtain similar status updates on all its servers, mobile devices and other infrastructure equipment.

Before moving to Veterans Affairs, Davis made waves at NASA by relaxing requirements for certifying network compliance so managers could focus on digitizing the process in this fashion. As a result of his pioneering, every NASA center now has a live dashboard, or status display, that produces daily updates on security configurations, bug fixes and vulnerability scanning.

But Veterans Affairs has had a bad habit of failing to inventory its hardware, including laptops and PDAs, according to federal inspectors. The department has been under scrutiny for years after several high-profile incidents that resulted in the loss of veterans' personal data.

Cognizant of such lackluster audits, Davis says his approach to information security remains the same irrespective of an agency's past track record. "They all have their challenges," he says. "For me it's about really understanding [that] it's a risk management activity. And every organization I go into, VA being no different, I try to look at the operational risk of what we're doing on a day-to-day basis."

Protecting the health records of men and women willing to give their lives for the country is just as daunting for him as safeguarding NASA's intellectual property. "It's still sensitive data," Davis maintains. "Everybody has got an asset that they are trying to protect. And that's part of the risk methodology that I follow. . . It doesn't matter whether it's export control data like NASA has or sensitive patient information that VA has."

Still, there are some things that do keep this man up at night. "It's the fear of not knowing," he says. "What did I miss? The threat is always changing. We tend to forget that security is biodegradable. It degrades over time. It will fail. It's just a matter of when."

Chiefs of the Year 2011 main page

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