"Between 96 and 98 percent of our [data breach] incidents -- it varies from month to month -- deal with physical paper where … people are not thinking about the fact that that piece of paper they're carrying around making benefits determinations has sensitive information and they need to protect it," said Stephen Warren, VA acting assistant secretary for information and technology. "It's an area that we spend a lot of time and training on. We are constantly updating our campaign to inform the staff that they have to take this seriously. We are constantly reinforcing the message that it matters."
The central point that Warren makes to VA employees who handle sensitive information is that patients can't get critical services if their identity has been stolen. "It has huge impact on an individual," he said.
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Most of these data breach incidents are cited as "mishandled or misused physical or verbal information" in the department's monthly reports to Congress of data incidents, which are assembled by the VA Office of Information Security's Incident Resolution Team.
In one case involving the VA's Milwaukee, Wis., facility last April, a paper notification letter was inadvertently sent to the wrong beneficiary. The letter contained the beneficiary's name, address, home phone number, Social Security number and bank account information. The beneficiary who erroneously received the document called VA to report the incident and returned it to the facility.
The VA employees involved in the Milwaukee incident were counseled on the importance of handling personally identifiable information, according to the April report.
In another April case, documents containing the full names and the last four digits of the Social Security numbers of 270 veterans were found on two separate occasions in men's restrooms in a Nashville, Tenn., VA office. The veterans were notified of the incident and investigators concluded that the documents were "inadvertently" left in the restrooms by unidentified employees who had attended morning meetings in the building.
According to the April report, there were 227 incidents of data breaches across the VA between April 1 and April 28 in which information was manually mishandled in one way or another. In comparison, only eight cases of stolen or missing PCs or laptops were reported and investigated in the same month.
Missing laptop or PC cases often involve inventory mixups, Warren said. For example, in an April incident at a Coatsville, Pa., VA facility, four desktops PCs were reported missing from the inventory; three of them were later found. No personally identifiable information or protected health information was stored on any of the PCs, the response team found.
"If you consider the fact the VA has about 440,000 people that we service and that the department over 900,000 devices on the network, [a data breach count relating to IT assets] of somewhere between one and 10 in a month is pretty good," Warren said. "And many of those are things disappearing in inventory. Many are found subsequently because they got moved somewhere."