These HealthCare.gov files could aid hackers. And Darrell Issa may release them.

December 20, 2013

(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

Significant security vulnerabilities are still being uncovered in the Obama administration's health-insurance Web site, nearly three months after the launch of HealthCare.gov.

Officials discovered two such vulnerabilities, known as "high findings," within the last month, including one this week, Teresa Fryer, the chief information security officer for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the House Oversight Committee this week in an interview. Fryer said that both issues were being addressed.

The debate over the security of HealthCare.gov has raised questions about whether similar vulnerabilities exist in systems across the federal government. Because the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration and other agencies communicate with HealthCare.gov, security gaps in those agencies could, if discovered, allow hackers to penetrate their systems and indirectly compromise the functioning of the new health-care law, according to outside security experts.

"It's a standard technique," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If the target is hard but it's linked to an easy target, breaking into the easy target will get you into the hard target."

While software vulnerabilities in Healthcare.gov have been documented, the potential risk stemming from the site’s interconnection with other federal systems has not. Officials from the White House, the Health and Human Services Department and others did not answer questions posed by The Washington Post about whether serious vulnerabilities exist in other federal IT systems linked to HealthCare.gov.

The strength of HealthCare.gov's security has been the subject of ongoing rancor between Republicans and Democrats. In recent weeks, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has highlighted the site's early vulnerabilities to accuse the White House of launching a premature product. Democrats, meanwhile, maintain that the bugs have been fixed and that the site is safe to use.

Of the two vulnerabilities identified by Fryer in her interview with Congress, one of them turned out to be false, said Patti Unruh, a spokeswoman for HHS. The contractor flagged the problem while performing an assessment in a test version of HealthCare.gov. But the real version contained safeguards that prevented the vulnerability from posing a security risk.

The other high finding involved a faulty piece of code that was successfully repaired, and there are currently no other significant security issues on the site, according to Unruh.

Separately, Mitre, an independent contractor hired to test the security of HealthCare.gov, identified 28 security vulnerabilities in one of several tests it conducted in mid-October, according to the company.

Those tests also showed that hackers could have obtained people’s personal information, according to a letter written to HHS this week by Issa, who quoted information given to him by the company.

Administration officials said the issues identified by Mitre either did not pose a security risk or have since been fixed.

"There have been no successful security attacks on HealthCare.gov," said HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters, "and no person or group has maliciously accessed personally identifiable information from the site."

Last month, Mitre agreed to send redacted copies of its test results to Issa in response to a subpoena. On Dec. 9, Issa requested the same documents in an unredacted format.

In a series of four letters to Issa, executives from Mitre, the contractor behind the studies, warned that the unredacted documents could pose a risk to national security.

"In the wrong hands, this information could cause irreparable harm to the basic security architecture of HealthCare.gov," wrote Mitre chief executive Alfred Grasso in a letter that accompanied the unredacted documents, "and potentially to the security of other CMS data networks that share attributes of this architecture."

The Obama administration chimed in, with the White House counsel's office urging Issa not to leak the documents for fear of endangering "other, similarly constructed federal IT system controls."

HHS wrote in a letter to Issa: “Disclosure of these security documents could [allow] hackers to penetrate not only HealthCare.gov and the Federal Data Services Hub, but other Federal IT systems, some of which contain taxpayer information.”

A Republican aide for Issa would not rule out a release but said that the lawmaker is working with outside analysts to determine the danger for himself.

House Democrats have demanded a classified meeting with Issa so that members of the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security could brief him on the danger of releasing the documents in his possession.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | December 20, 2013