Hired Hacker Invades VA

A private security company hired by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' inspector general broke into VA computer systems to show that the agency needs to work harder on securing sensitive data, according to testimony delivered to Congress today.

The audit, by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, found numerous weaknesses in the firewalls at the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Veterans Health Administration, where confidential health and benefits records are stored.

"The security problems VA faces are serious," said Rep. Corinne Brown, a Democrat from Florida, ranking member on House VA Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "They represent an open door to the U.S. Treasury."

In testimony prepared for delivery to subcommittee, assistant IG Michael Slachta Jr. said the holes in the VA's security system make the agency's programs and financial data "vulnerable to destruction, manipulation and fraud," Slachta said.

Among the weaknesses, he said:

* Passwords were not changed often enough, and words were used that could be easily guessed.

* Physical security at the main computer room was inadequate.

* New employees were not properly trained.

Security problems continue to exist because the VA has not implemented an integrated security management program, and the VHA has not effectively managed computer security at its medical facilities, according to Joel Willemssen, director of the civil agencies information systems at the General Accounting Office.

"Financial transaction data and personal information on veterans' medical records continued to face increased risk of inadvertent or deliberate misuse, fraudulent use, improper disclosure or destruction," Willemssen said in his prepared testimony.

However, "It wasn't all bad news," VBA chief information officer K. Adair Martinez said during the hearing today, "There were two [real] hacking attacks last week on the VBA system, and they were both detected and prevented."

This is not the first time that the VA has been criticized for lax security. For several years, Congress has complained that the VA has not taken the right steps to protect electronic data and failed to properly track the more than US$1 billion it spends each year on technology - a requirement of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act.

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