VA’s Cybersecurity Still Missing Critical Zero-Trust Element, Watchdog Says

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An official from the Government Accountability Office said she is encouraged by the formation of an investment review board at the department and intends to monitor it closely.

The Veterans Affairs Department has come a long way implementing Government Accountability Office recommendations for protecting its information systems but still doesn’t have appropriate access control measures in place, according to congressional testimony from a GAO official.

As of June 2021, VA had implemented 70 out of 74 recommendations for information security, Carol Harris, GAO’s director of information technology management issues told the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee’s panel on technology modernization during a hearing Thursday.

“However,” she said in her prepared report and testimony, “The four remaining recommendations relate to weaknesses in access controls and configuration management. Until VA addresses these remaining shortcomings, it will continue to have limited assurance that its sensitive information and information systems are sufficiently safeguarded.”

Setting privileges for controlling who gets to access various parts of an organization’s information technology systems is core to the concept of zero trust. Federal officials are stressing the importance of such zero-trust practices in the wake of high-profile cyberattacks. In the the SolarWinds campaign, for example, hackers leveraged unauthorized access to the IT management firm to distribute malware to scores of private-sector entities and federal agencies.

Harris mentioned the SolarWinds hack in noting that VA is also among the majority of agencies that have not implemented its recommendations for securing the supply chain of information and communications technology. She connected the cybersecurity issues to ongoing management challenges at VA and shared concerns about investments in cybersecurity in relation to broader information technology spending.

“The lack of key cybersecurity management elements at VA is concerning given that agencies’ systems are increasingly susceptible to the multitude of cyber-related threats that exist,” reads her written testimony. “As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department’s IT budget supports efforts to adequately secure its systems.”

During the hearing, Rep. Frank Mrvan, D-Ind., chairman of the subcommittee, also raised the issue of cybersecurity spending as part of VA’s general IT budget and, using a set of charts, expressed concern that investment in cybersecurity had declined in recent years. But witnesses from the VA disputed his assessment, arguing that spending on cybersecurity had actually gone up.

“We'll have to look at the numbers you're providing here,” Dominic Cussatt, VA’s acting chief information officer, said. “Our cybersecurity funding did increase this year. And one of the things you might be looking at is some of our cybersecurity spend is now embedded in operations.” 

He said the VA spends about 10% of its IT budget on cybersecurity and does its best with that amount based on risk management practices. But risk management is another area where the VA hadn’t met the GAO’s expectations by June 2021.

“VA does have a cybersecurity risk management program, however, it is not complete,” Harris said. “VA has established the role of a cybersecurity risk executive, for example, to lead VA's activities in this area, but it has not developed a cyber risk management strategy, nor performed department-wide risk assessments or established coordination between their cybersecurity and enterprise risk management programs for managing these risks. So there are still critical areas that they need to address in this regard.”

During the hearing, VA officials said coordination between officials such as the chief financial officer, the chief information officer and the chief acquisitions officer is happening through a new investment review board, which Harris was pleased to learn of.

“Given the statements made by the CAO, CFO and CIO, with regard to this investment review board process ... if it is implemented effectively, that's a very good sign for ensuring that the IT dollars are effectively spent and that these projects are receiving the appropriate attention that they need,” she said. “So we're going to have to keep a close eye on that. That will be a long, sustained effort that will be required on VA's part to be able to do well.” 

During the hearing, Harris noted that the average tenure of VA CIOs since 2012 has been less than two years. 

Asked about the implications of this, Cussatt said the politically appointed CIO is important for introducing more of the private sector’s perspective and that disruptions from the excessive turnover in the position are tempered by robust career-level support staff.

“We do try to mitigate that with a strong career leadership staff,” he said. “We do have a principal deputy who's a career employee, as well as six deputy CIOs and deputy assistant secretaries who are careerists so we really see that as the supplement to the rotating CIO, who is a political appointee,” he said. “You know, understand the benefits of that you get an infusion of perhaps private sector viewpoints in bringing a political appointee in, but we balance it through the career staff and the career leadership that we have in place to mitigate the disruption.”

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