VA Needs More Cyber Employees to Support Remote Work and Tackle Shadow IT

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Veterans Affairs leadership said that the agency needs to be able to provide competitive compensation to attract talent.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is looking to bolster its workforce and improve asset management to respond to increasing digital threats. 

The House Veterans Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Technology Modernization held a hearing on Tuesday discussing what the agency needs to continue safeguarding veterans’ sensitive data.

Witness Kurt DelBene, the Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology and  Chief Information Officer, said that securing more cybersecurity talent within the VA’s office is paramount. 

“We just need to amp up the number of people that we have working in the space inside the VA,” he testified. “There was a discussion before about our level of staffing relative to other places in the federal government.”

DelBene told Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., that budget increases are required to offer competitive pay that will incentivize cybersecurity talent.

“It really is around what the base level pay is, whether we can help people on on-call pay, and what are the other incentives that we can provide financially,” he said. “I think it's going to be a multi-year process for us to actually ramp that funding. We have to find the talent to add to the staff. And that's going to take us some time.”

VA leadership added during the hearing that the pandemic has further exacerbated their cybersecurity needs as more employees continue working remotely to login to federal servers and networks. Acting Chief Information Security Officer Lynette Sherrill said that the VA’s modernization efforts leading up to this transition put the organization in a strong position to support remote security.

Other common issues, such as maintaining strong login credentials, were also discussed. But DelBene answered inquiries surrounding managing all of the information technology assets connected to the VA’s Acceptable Clinical Evidence, or ACE, network.

DelBene also told Congress of his plans to organize the VA’s Shadow IT network, or systems launched by offices within the VA to circumvent the agency’s central IT features. The inconsistency in technology can lead to security concerns and risks.

DelBene said taking inventory of all the VA’s IT assets and disseminating standard requirements will help patch potential security holes. 

“We have to inventory those systems,” he said. “We have to find that they're out there, we have to reach out to the people that manage those systems and say, here's the requirements.”

Michael Bowman, the director of IT and Security Audits Division with the VA’s Office of Inspector General, elaborated that the VA is identifying assets with the help of scanning remote facilities to register IP addresses to gauge network access points. 

“We're identifying assets connected to the network compared to how VA scans and monitors its network,” he said. “We're looking at a local scan at the remote facilities and because of those local scans, we're able to see a lot broader IP address range than maybe the central cybersecurity scanning efforts, and a lot of that has to do with the local personnel identifying all assets that are connected to the network.”

Bowman added that scanning the VA IT network will keep the agency’s security posture intact. 

These efforts will contribute to the VA’s new initiatives surrounding personal veteran data, primarily regarding health data. DelBene said that the department is developing a new data platform run on artificial intelligence technology to help solve veteran health problems. 

DelBene said the VA is looking into strong, unified encryption and data governance policies to protect veterans’ health information. 

“And so we need to think deeply about how we structure data, we need to bring that data together into a clear structure across the organization, and then build those access controls and then governance on top,” he said. 

The hearing comes as Congress is considering proposed legislation to strengthen VA’s cyber standards through independent auditing, a move opposed by agency leadership.