Panel moves to tighten data security for veterans

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday approved legislation to bolster data security at the Veterans Affairs Department. The measure was approved by voice vote.

The bill, H.R. 5835, would centralize the VA's information technology operation under a new undersecretary of information services, who would service as the department's chief information officer, and three deputies for security, operations and management, and policy and planning.

The VA would have to immediately report security breeches to Congress, federal authorities and the veterans whose personally sensitive information is affected. That information could be anything from a birth date or home address, to a Social Security number or financial data.

"Obviously, we cannot change the agency through mandates, but we can change their culture," committee ranking Democrat Bob Filner, D-Calif., said of the VA's "dangerously dysfunctional IT structure."

The legislation is a response to the May theft from the home of a VA employee of a laptop computer containing the personal information of 26.5 million veterans and military personnel. The incident received wide media attention and sparked a flurry of congressional hearings on the issue of data and Internet security.

The House VA committee conducted seven hearings on information security, which led to the crafting of legislation "to help ensure veterans the peace of mind that their personal data is secure," Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., a colonel in the Army Reserves, said in a committee release.

The bill would require the VA secretary to hire an outside agency to conduct a risk analysis after security breaches to determine costs or potential information misuse. Buyer said the secretary also could request a risk analysis from the FBI, which investigated the May theft.

The measure calls for a study into using personal identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers at the VA.

Veterans affected by breaches would receive free credit monitoring and insurance against associated financial losses or costs, such as legal fees or lost wages. Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., who requested that the insurance component be included, said "the government's ability to respond to emergencies is not exactly stellar. There is more confidence in the private sector to respond on this scale."

To bolster the number of Internet security experts at the VA, the bill would create a scholarship program for students earning doctorates in computer science. The scholarships could not exceed $50,000 per person, per year. The secretary also could award tuition reimbursement up to $82,500 over five years to doctoral graduates working in the VA's IT department.

Committee members from both parties hailed the program. Buyer said "there's so much hacking going on out there, we need to induce more people to study this curriculum."

Members of the House Energy and Commerce and Financial Services committees currently are working to combine separate pieces of legislation aiming to protect personal financial data. A bill could reach the House floor by next week. It is currently unknown whether the VA bill also would be part of that package.

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