VA misses targets for fixing IT security risks

VA's top tech official says he is balancing risks while trying to keep the department's online services open for business.

Stephen Warren

Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Stephen Warren

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not pass its fiscal 2014 IT security audit, conducted by the agency inspector general's office. The not-yet-released audit, which determines compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act, found unremediated security risks in VA's sprawling network of systems and connected devices.

Stephen Warren, head of VA's Office of Information and Technology, disclosed the news of the bad report card during a Nov. 14 call with reporters. The department's fiscal 2013 security audit had cited 6,000 unresolved risks, and offered 30 recommendations to improve security. This latest FISMA report, due to be released next spring, will similarly detail outstanding risks due for correction in the coming year.

Warren stressed the balancing act between keeping systems up for the delivery of services and meeting audit requirements. The VA's computer networks support between 1.2 million and 1.4 million devices, with multiple applications and services running on each device. That adds up to an environment with as many as 150 million potential targets that need to be scanned for vulnerabilities. "We know the most secure system is the one that we don't turn on," Warren said.

To get an idea of the threat environment, consider that an October information security report showed that the VA network defenses deflected more than 12 million intrusion attempts, and blocked more than 200 million individual pieces of malware. More than 71 million suspect emails were blocked, while 27 medical devices were deemed compromised or infected by malware.

For VA, the first line of defense is the Einstein 3 monitoring tool from the Department of Homeland Security. Warren wouldn't specify the origins of the attacks, or whether they were part of an organized campaign against VA. The investigations of the source of the attacks were handled by DHS and the Department of Defense, Warren said.

The fiscal 2014 audit will ask Warren to improve standardization and compliance in system configuration, tighten access controls, put security management on a continuous basis rather than lean on one-time accreditation, and establish more detailed contingency planning. The next audit season starts in March 2015, and Warren said his team was gearing up in advance to update their plan for the fiscal 2015 FISMA audit.

'… Extensive Data Manipulation'

During October, security breaches affected 765 veterans, with 536 being offered credit protection services. The cases involved the loss of devices or chipped identification cards, unauthorized access to records by VA personnel, the loss of paper records set to be destroyed, and other problems arising from employee error, carelessness and occasional malice. It's not clear how many records, if any, were compromised because of intrusion across computer networks.

Overall, Warren said, "I believe that we are successfully keeping veterans' information safe."

Warren will have to make his case in front of his severest critics on the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Nov. 18, in a hearing with the somewhat-menacing title, "VA's Longstanding Information Security Weaknesses Continue to Allow Extensive Data Manipulation."

Warren did not offer an opinion on whether relations with the committee have improved since Robert McDonald took over as VA secretary, but said his office was trying to comply with requests for information from Congress as they come in. Top officials from the VA's OIG who conducted the FISMA audit are scheduled to testify at the same hearing.

In search of a scheduling system

Warren also announced that a request for proposals for a commercial off-the-shelf scheduling system to interface with the VA's electronic health record system Vista will go out by Nov. 21.

The plan is for a contractor to supply a commercial system and build the connections that will allow it to operate on Vista.

The original schedule called for the solicitation to go out in September, but it was delayed so procurement officials could refine project requirements in response to queries from vendors. In August the VA commissioned fixes to improve the interface of the current system, which will go live in the spring. Because of this, Warren said, he was comfortable taking extra time on the scheduling procurement, "to get it right."

The Office of Information and Technology will also play a role in the pending reorganization of the VA.

While no new information was shared on the structure of the planned reorganization, one feature is to improve customer service by giving veterans a single point of access to interact with VA. This means a reduction in the number of public-facing websites from 14 to possibly just one. Warren expects to have at least a draft plan of how to accomplish that ready in January.