Moving to fully remote data collection in VA program puts personal information at risk, says IG

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The VA’s Office of the Inspector General issued a management alert that the Veterans Benefits Administration’s move to remote data collection in an educational benefits program left personally identifiable information at risk of disclosure.

The report, the latest in a growing series of assessments of the impacts of procedural changes federal agencies have made due to the pandemic, focused on regular reviews by the VBA to check whether people collecting benefits are enrolled in the claimed schools or training programs.

He said that “in response to the conditions of COVID-19, at the beginning of 2020 the VBA” suspended in-person compliance investigations and required that they be conducted remotely. To supplement remote surveys, the VBA and state approving agencies instructed school certifiers to submit documentation electronically to survey specialists, but did not specify. submission standards.

Specifically, he said the VBA “has not provided any guidance on how documentation should be sent electronically to protect PII,” such as encryption or other protection. “The lack of standard procedures and oversight of electronic document collection has resulted in students’ personal information not being consistently protected as required during remote compliance investigations,” he said.

In a sample of 30 compliance investigations, auditors found that 26 contained personal information such as dates of birth and social security numbers, some of them sent via unsecured email and sharing websites. third-party files.

“Before using third-party file-sharing websites, agencies should evaluate the websites privacy policy to assess the risks and determine whether the website or application is appropriate for the agency’s use” , the report adds.

In response, the VBA said it “does not dispute” the findings and said it would then review them and “take corrective action if necessary”.

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