In July, a hacker gained access to a computer server used to test code for the federal government's Obamacare website HealthCare.gov, according to a Thursday report by the Wall Street Journal's Danny Yadron. Although the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stressed no data was taken and no harm resulted, officials remain concerned about the hacker's ease of access and the potential for great damage. But despite HHS's assurances after the breach was discovered on August 25 that measures are in place to guarantee security, including "daily security scans and drill hacking exercises," at least one test site, akatest.healthcare.gov, is still accessible publicly via a simple web browser.
After warning users of potential security issues, different browsers respond to the test site in various ways. For instance, Google's Chrome browser displays lines of computer code, but the Firefox browser actually shows users (see screenshot below) a somewhat stripped-down version of the normal Healthcare.gov homepage:
Users can click on links to navigate around the test site, although there do not appear to be any opportunities to create or log on to accounts as on the regular site. (A cached version of the above page is saved on archive.org if the government eventually blocks the test server.) This test site was updated as recently as August 28 with a blog post on that date, three days after HHS discovered the July hacking incident and instituted "measures to further strengthen security," according to an HHS official quoted by the Journal. The Journal also said that "[t]he White House and Congressional staff have been briefed on the matter... The Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency have aided the investigation," which is still ongoing.
THE WEEKLY STANDARD first reported the vulnerability of Healthcare.gov test sites in December 2013 when at least two such sites were exposed. The two sites, spa.healthcare.gov and test.healthcare.gov, were quickly blocked after our report. It is unclear how long akatest.healthcare.gov has been accessible, and it's also unclear if the akatest server or some other test server was hacked in the incident reported by the Journal.
When asked to comment on this latest discovery, David Kennedy of TrustedSec, an Internet security firm, surmised that probably "they plugged the initial hole, but having their test servers exposed externally is bad practice." Kennedy has testified before Congress about security concerns with the Healthcare.gov site.
With 2015 open enrollment less than two and a half months away, the government has been hiring new personnel and contractors to try to avoid a repeat of last year's debacle. As Congress continues to press for more details of the launch and what went wrong, fresh news of security breaches and potential breaches almost a year after Healthcare.gov launched is not reassuring. The Journal report said that the "server accessed had such low security settings because it was never meant to be connected to the Internet." With the cost of Healthcare.gov estimated in a recent inspector general report to eventually run as high as $1.7 billion, Congress and the public may be justified in wondering if, at least when it comes to security, they are getting their money's worth.