Information security officers and other officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reacted with "indifference" and a "lack of urgency" after learning about the theft of computer hardware containing personal data on millions of veterans, according to a report released last week by the agency's inspector general.
The report also says that process and policy failures, a lack of supervision and personal squabbles contributed to the security breach and the VA's response to the incident. The inspector general recommended several steps for addressing the shortcomings, including the adoption of a "clear, concise" policy for safeguarding sensitive data.
In a letter to the inspector general that was included with the report, VA Secretary R. James Nicholson said he fully concurs with the recommendations and is committed to making the VA "a gold standard" for information security among government agencies.
The security breach "exposed deficiencies in information security involving leadership, policies and procedures," Nicholson wrote. "That will change during my tenure." He added that he has made it clear inside the VA that improving security and reorganizing the agency's Office of Information Technology "are my top priorities going forward."
'Decades of Neglect'
But Bruce Brody, a former chief information security officer at the VA, called the inspector general's findings a little underwhelming. The report "points fingers at all the symptoms instead of all the underlying causes," said Brody, who is now a security consultant at Input in Reston, Va.
A lot of the problems at the VA involve systemic cultural issues and an environment in which the agency's IT and security offices traditionally have had far too little authority to be really effective, Brody claimed. "Decades and decades of neglect and a fierce resistance to centralized authority are the root causes for this," he said.
The names, Social Security numbers and other personal data of 26.5 million veterans and active-duty military personnel were exposed when a laptop PC and external hard disk were stolen May 3 from the home of a VA data analyst. Both pieces of hardware were recovered last month by the FBI, which has said that the data appears to have been untouched.
Nonetheless, the VA is stilltaking heat from members of Congress who want the agency to go forward with a sweeping restructuring of its IT operations. The inspector general's 78-page report bolsters the calls for internal changes, listing lapses up and down the chain of command at the VA.
For instance, the data analyst whose house was burglarized was authorized to access VA databases, according to the report. But much of the information he had stored on the hard drive was being used for a self-initiated project he had been doing on his own time since 2003 without the knowledge of his supervisors, the report says.
The inspector general's investigation also found the department's response to the hardware theft to be deeply flawed.
Early on, few attempts were made to understand the magnitude and significance of the stolen data, the report claims. The initial incident report from the information security office within the VA's Office of Policy, Planning and Preparedness had "significant errors and omissions," it says.
But, the report continues, higher-level security officers made no attempts to get clarifications from the data analyst. "At nearly every step, VA information security officials ... reacted with indifference and little sense of urgency," it says.
The VA also lacked policies for safeguarding sensitive information and had poor supervisory oversight of how data was being accessed and used by employees and outside contractors, the report claims.
"Don't be surprised if, in a dysfunctional organization, the security group is also dysfunctional," said Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore. The agency's security officers aren't blame-free, Pescatore said. But, he added, bad things can happen "if you are in that job and you don't have the authority you are supposed to have to enforce anything."