Add Security To The List Of HealthCare.gov Tech Issues

Oct 31, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 9:37 am

To the long list of problems plaguing HealthCare.gov, add data security. The enrollment site for the new health insurance exchanges had a security flaw that didn't get patched up when the exchange marketplace went live.

An internal government memo obtained by The Washington Post and Associated Press is dated Sept. 27 — four days before the HealthCare.gov website went live. It shows the government decided to go forward with launching the site even though there were "inherent security risks."

The memo says that from a security perspective, aspects of the system that were not tested due to the ongoing development "exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed as a high risk for FFM [Federally Facilitated Marketplace]."

Under federal government cybersecurity protocol, someone has to sign off on temporary certifications to operate despite security risks, and in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce panel Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that temporary authority was granted because a security risk "mitigation plan" was in place.

"You accepted a risk of every user of this computer that put their personal financial information at risk," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., while questioning Sebelius.

The personal information going into HealthCare.gov includes birth date, Social Security number and an estimated income range. Sebelius emphasized that the additional security controls gave the agency confidence in going ahead with the launch, despite the audit showing a security gap.

"They get to make those decisions and those tradeoffs," says Waylon Krush, CEO of LunarLine, a cybersecurity firm that does work with dozens of federal government agencies, including HHS. "[Agency systems] process, store, manage, review a lot more sensitive data than what your general citizen is gonna put on HealthCare.gov, so I would say, from a risk perspective, it's pretty low, actually."

But the agency's technological credibility is dwindling, as programmers rush to fix ongoing issues with the error-riddled system. Now, programmers have to make sure they don't introduce new security risks with each patch.

"I know they're doing simultaneous testing as new code is loaded," Sebelius said Wednesday. Krush says this attention on security presents a good reminder for all of us.

"Everyone should always ask those questions, whether it's commercial or government, 'How are you protecting my data?' " he says.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now you can add security to the long list of problems plaguing HealthCare.gov - the enrollment site for the new health insurance exchanges.

As NPR's Elise Hu reports.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: How safe is the data you enter on HealthCare.gov? That's a question on the minds of some lawmakers, like Michigan Republican Mike Rogers.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Has each piece of that code that's been introduced into the system been security tested?

HU: The memo leaked to the AP and The Washington Post shows an audit raised an unspecified high-risk security concern before the health care marketplace opened. But officials signed off on a temporary certificate to operate anyway. Rogers criticized Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for that decision during a Wednesday hearing.

ROGERS: You accepted a risk of every user of this computer that put their personal financial information at risk.

HU: The personal information going into HealthCare.gov include birthdate, Social Security number, and an estimated income range. Sebelius says her team was OK with the temporary go-ahead because additional security controls were in place.

Waylon Krush is the head of Lunar Line, a cybersecurity firm that does work with dozens of federal government agencies.

WAYLON KRUSH: They get to make those decisions and those tradeoffs.

HU: He says HHS - which administers Medicare and Medicaid - actually has a lot of experience with data security.

KRUSH: They process, store, manage, review a lot more sensitive data than what, you know, your general citizen is going to put on HealthCare.gov, so I would say, from a risk perspective, it's pretty low, actually,

HU: But the agency's technological credibility is dwindling as programmers rush to fix ongoing issues with the error-riddled system. Now, programmers have to make sure they don't introduce new security risks with each patch. Again, Sebelius.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I know they're doing simultaneous testing as new code is loaded.

HU: Krush says this attention on security presents a good reminder for all of us.

KRUSH: Everyone should always ask those questions whether it's commercial or government, how are you protecting my data?

HU: An important question, as more and more pieces of our lives exist online.

Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.