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Computer Security Problems at VA More Than Doubled in the Past Six Years


This story has been updated to add detail.

The Veterans Affairs Department has not fully developed and instituted a comprehensive program to secure its networks and computer systems despite reports of weaknesses  over the past 16 years, as the number of VA computer security incidents more than tripled between 2007 and 2013, the Government Accountability Office reported Tuesday.

In the past six years, the number of computer security incidents reported by the VA to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) has more than doubled from 4,834 in 2007 to 11,382 incidents in 2013, GAO said. These included incidents related to unauthorized access; denial-of-service attacks; installation of malicious code; improper usage of computing resources; and scans, probes, and attempted access, among others.

Recent reports highlight the serious impact that inadequate information security can have on, among other things, the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of veterans’ personal information, Gregory Wilshusen, GAO director for information security issues, on Tuesday told a hearing of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House VA Committee.

These include, Wilshusen said, a software defect discovered in January that allowed 5,400 veterans using the VA eBenefits system to view the data of other veterans.

He also faulted VA for continued weaknesses in its access control systems. These systems should ensure only authorized individuals can read, alter or delete data, he said. They should also segregate data to reduce the risk that an individual can independently perform inappropriate actions without detection and include contingency planning to prevent significant disruptions of computer-dependent operations under continuity of operations plans.

VA also needs to develop an agencywide information security program to provide the framework for ensuring that risks are understood and that effective controls are selected and properly used, Wilshusen told the hearing. The persistence of security weaknesses over 16 years “indicates the need for stronger, more focused management attention and action to ensure that VA fully implements a robust security program.”

Lawmakers on the panel are considering draft legislation to improve VA information security, including better governance backed up by top level oversight and a requirement that security is baked-in throughout the life cycle of VA information systems -- all reforms Wilshusen backed.

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