Security panel to Congress: website should not have launched

Four security experts told Congress today that if they'd been asked, the Web site would not have launched given the known security shortcomings of the site.

Problems outlined in a consultant's report about the site plus apparent weaknesses in the site's architecture would have led them to say no if asked whether the site should have gone live Oct. 1.

[ security warnings came before launch

MORE:Many people will shop for insurance outside

EARLY's problem]

The witnesses before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee were: Fred Chang, a computer science professor at Southern Methodist University and former research director for the NSA; David Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSEC and former CSO of Diebold; Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University; Morgan Wright, CEO of Crowd Sourced Investigations, cybersecurity analyst for Fox News and Fox Business, and a former senior law enforcement advisor to the Republican National Convention.

Three of those four say they think should be shut down. The fourth, Rubin, says he doesn't have enough information to decide, but that a security review of the site is in order. "I would need to know whether there are inherent flaws vs. superficial problems that can be fixed," Rubin says. "If they can be fixed, that's better than shutting it down."

Based on what he's been able to glean from public record and reconnaissance of the site, Kennedy says he could break into the site's data stores within two days and steal the personal information of people who have used the site.

Kennedy also demonstrated that he could redirect people trying to access the site to a look-alike site that could push malware that would serve up remote control of the devices to attackers.

He pointed out that was a portal that had links to other government sites including the IRS and Homeland Security, giving attackers who crack the opportunity to attack those other sites as well. Rubin says the success of such attempts would depend on the nature of those inter-site links, and those details are not public.

The site is intended to provide pricing information about health insurance options under the Affordable Care Act. The site has been plagued with functional issues since it launched Oct. 1, and the committee met today to address, "Is My Data on Secure?"

Initially, the site required personally identifiable information about visitors including Social Security numbers, putting that information at jeopardy if the site is not secure.

The witnesses said the 500 million lines of code used to run the site represented a level of complexity that created a vast attack surface that could be probed to find weaknesses. In addition, the complexity increased the risk that when flaws were fixed, the fixes would inadvertently break something else in the application.

Wright said if the same project were bid on using means employed by the private sector the project would have cost less, the code would have been much less bloated and the site would have worked better out of the box with better security. The government needs to update how it puts Web projects out to bid, he said.

Rubin said the way the site was rolled out open to the general public on a date agreed to ahead of time violated the way such rollouts are commonly done. First, sites are usually opened to a control group in order to discover flaws and fix them, then opened to larger and larger groups to address additional problems that scaling up might cause. Only then are they made generally available.

"It's not very common to roll out new systems to a ton of users on one day," he said.

Sound industry practices used by major public facing Web sites such as airlines reservation sites, Orbitz and Facebook show that it's possible to run such sites without whole-scale data loss. Those practices can help protect against common attacks such as denial of service, cross-site scripting and SQL injection.

Kennedy said he's identified 17 exposures on that could be exploited, and has reported them to authorities at the Department of Health and Human Services who can address them.

In response to a question, all four witnesses said they would not have required site visitors to give up personally identifiable information in order to get health insurance pricing data from the site.

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III said the site had been fixed so personal information was not required to get the pricing.

Wright said he checked the site during the hearing and he was asked for personal information.

Later this afternoon it was possible to get the pricing without giving personally identifiable information.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the  Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

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