Fixing security

While the security weaknesses found in by a U.S. government watchdog need to be addressed, they are not unusual for sites as complex as the federal insurance exchange, experts say.

In a report released Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office found problems in the "technical controls protecting the confidentiality, integrity and availability" of the federally facilitated marketplace (FFM), which is the area of the site to buy health insurance.

Specifically, the GAO faulted the site's operator for failing to require and enforce strong passwords, to adequately restrict access to the Internet by systems supporting the FFM, to consistently implement software patches, and to properly configure the administrative network for the FFM.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is responsible for

"I'm certainly not making excuses, but I don't think that there's something unusually out of the ordinary in what we see in these problems," Eric Cowperthwaite, former chief information security officer of Providence Health and Services, said. "I would venture to say that if you were to have GAO do a security audit of any system of this size and complexity, in 90 percent of them they would find these problems."

Nevertheless, while's weaknesses are not surprising, the money spent in building the site, estimated at more than $500 million, should have paid for better security, Wayne Jackson, chief executive officer for Sonatype, an application security vendor, said.

"The disappointing thing about the GAO study is that we've spent so much money on that website," Jackson said. "Were I responsible for that Web property, the report would have been embarrassing for me."

Fixing would require developing and implementing a system security plan, as recommended by the GAO, experts said.

Such a plan should incorporate strategies for handling network connectivity, authentication for people accessing the site and threat and vulnerability management, based on recommendations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In addition, CMS should work toward eliminating as much complexity as possible from the site's infrastructure.

"After making sure I had a plan, then I would want to make sure I was reducing my risk (of a compromise), and the best way to do that is to make things simpler, not more complex," said Cowperthwaite, currently vice president of advanced security and strategy at Core Security, which performs application testing.

Among the common security problems listed by the GAO were installing software security patches and enforcing strong passwords, experts said. Enforcing strong passwords is often avoided by websites, because users balk at creating hard-to-remember passwords of eight characters or more.

Patching is never done across all software in a timely manner, because fixing one application often causes another one to break. In general, patches are applied first to software that handles critical data and less frequently to nonessential applications.

Tracking systems with Internet access is also a major problem in web sites like, because of the complexity of the backend integration.

The federal site is connected to the systems of federal agencies, state governments and insurance companies. Uninsured Americans in 36 states use the site to buy health insurance.

"The number of connections that they have to make, some via the Internet, some via private network connections, is probably, if we knew the full scope of it, pretty staggering," Cowperthwaite said.

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