House passes IT security bill

The House on Tuesday night, by a voice vote, passed legislation that would substantially alter a federal information security law and the Veterans Affairs Department's technology management structure.

Veterans' Affairs Committee staff members said they are negotiating with their counterparts on the Senate side in an attempt to get the legislation (H.R. 5835) through that chamber as well. The Senate Veterans' Affairs panel has previously opposed some aspects of the measure.

The bill, sponsored by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., is aimed at strengthening the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act. It also would further centralize information technology authority at VA by making the chief information officer an undersecretary, and would require the department to provide credit protection and fraud resolution services upon request in the event of a data breach.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., signaled that he will move his own bill (H.R. 6163) to change FISMA in November if the Senate does not act on the Buyer legislation.

Buyer's measure comes in response to a rash of data breaches reported across the government, starting with the early May theft of personal information on 26.5 million people from the home of a VA employee. The computer was subsequently recovered. Other agencies have reported data breaches on smaller scales.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the cost of providing insurance and fraud resolution services to victims of data breaches can average $10 million a year. This is based on an estimate that the VA would experience an average of three data breaches per year in which sensitive information is compromised for an average of 50,000 people.

Implementation of the information security legislation would cost $50 million from fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2011, with $5 million needed in fiscal 2007, CBO reported.

Several of the bill's provisions already have been acted upon by the Office of Management and Budget and VA, but legislators want to lock them into law.

The bill would require the VA secretary to be briefed monthly on the department's FISMA compliance. The FISMA language, written by Davis's House Government Reform Committee staff, is a revision of a separate measure introduced in July.

Committee spokesman David Marin said the new language is in response to a report from the Commerce Department revealing that of 30,000-plus laptops inventoried across the department's 15 organizations since 2001, 1,137 had been lost or stolen. In particular, the report said that half the lost computers at the Census Bureau within Commerce were missing simply because employees did not return them when they left their jobs.

"The agency did not track computer equipment, nor were employees held accountable for failing to return it," Marin said. "This is taxpayer funded equipment, containing sensitive information, and we need to know what we have and who has it at all times."

The language altering FISMA would give CIOs the responsibility to enforce rules that would help account for and secure IT equipment containing sensitive information. It also would require agencies to inform the public when data breaches involving sensitive information occur. OMB would need to establish procedures for agencies to follow if personal information is lost or stolen.

Previously the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has opposed legislative language that would mandate the centralization of IT resources at the VA. But House Veterans' Affairs Committee staffers said they believe that the Senate needs to act on the latest legislation in order to appease veterans groups.

A spokesman for the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmed that the bill is under discussion, but said a vote is unlikely this week and would have to happen in November during a lame duck session.

Craig said in an interview with Government Executive in July that he wants to avoid legislating changes in the executive branch because he does not believe Congress can "design the perfect system."

But he said at the time that he will speak with Buyer and see that some changes are made, "whether it is under this secretary's design, or whether it's under what Chairman Buyer wants to do in the House."

"We're not going to tolerate this any longer," Craig said. "There is not going to be another IG report coming to the Congress that [says] 'Once again warned and nothing happened.'"

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