[ISN] Lawmaker: VA officials still take lax approach to data security

From: InfoSec News (alerts@private)
Date: Tue Feb 13 2007 - 22:29:43 PST


By Daniel Pulliam
dpulliam (at) govexec.com
February 13, 2007

Recent comments by a mid-level Veterans Affairs Department official are 
a sign of a management culture that still fails to take data security 
seriously enough, the ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs 
Committee said Monday.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., publicized a recording of the comments, in 
response to the VA's latest data breach. The recording was of a meeting 
in early January and captured Joseph Francis, acting deputy chief 
research and development officer at VA, telling his staff members that 
they did not need to "do an A-plus job" in responding to a congressional 
request for information on where the department keeps sensitive data.

"If you want to know what's the real purpose of the data call, read 
Machiavelli. It's about power, it's about Congress saying, 'VA, you're 
accountable to us,'" Francis said. "We're not asking people to do an 
A-plus job on this report."

In response to the disclosure, VA spokesman Matt Burns said Francis "is 
with the program" and understands what the agency is doing to protect 
veterans' data.

In a letter to the editor [1] of The Hill, the Capitol Hill newspaper 
that first obtained the recording, Francis said his comments were taken 
out of context and "offered a very misleading impression of what I 
actually said."

"The meeting was intended to emphasize VA's need to provide the highest 
level of protection for our human research subjects, particularly as it 
relates to information security issues," Francis wrote.

He said members of the audience were concerned that lawmakers gave the 
department only four days to meet the request for data, and that he 
asked for the employees' best efforts even if the results were not 

But Buyer was skeptical.

"Congress does expect an A-plus job of Dr. Francis, as it does all the 
people who are entrusted with the health care and benefits delivery of 
America's veterans and family members," Buyer said. "The time for 
second-guessing by VA middle management is over."

The potential for fraud in the latest data breach is "enormous," Buyer 
said. The incident puts at risk highly sensitive information on the 1.3 
million physicians who have billed Medicaid and Medicare, and medical 
data for about 535,000 VA patients.

The breach did not come up at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee 
hearing Tuesday on the fiscal 2008 budget, though VA Secretary James 
Nicholson emphasized that the department is working toward its goal of 
becoming the "gold standard" for information security in the government.

After the hearing, Nicholson told reporters it has yet to be determined 
whether the hard drive containing the data was stolen or lost. He said 
the VA inspector general continues to lead the investigation, in 
consultation with the FBI.

Nicholson said he could not predict whether the hard drive would be 
recovered. He said the employee who lost it "clearly" violated agency 
policies by leaving the data unprotected and has been placed on 
administrative leave. The hard drive went missing after the office 
changed locations, Nicholson said.

"Hard drives are such small things," Nicholson said.

According to Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Ranking Member Larry 
Craig, R-Idaho, the employee initially said the hard drive had been 
stolen but has since changed his story. Nicholson said the employee has 
obtained an attorney.

Copyright 2007 by National Journal Group Inc. All rights reserved.

[1] http://thehill.com/thehill/export/TheHill/Comment/LetterstotheEditor/011607.html

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