VA cuts telework, bans employee-owned computers

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 home.

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 firing.

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 data.

While the extent of the breach expanded this week to affect the records of 2.2 million military personnel in addition to many 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," Walker said.

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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