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UPDATE 1-U.S. healthcare website has security bugs, expert warns Congress

Jim Finkle and Alina Selyukh
Tuesday, 19 Nov 2013 | 11:44 AM ET

(Adds comment from congressman, Health and Human Services spokeswoman)

Nov 19 (Reuters) - The website at the center of U.S. President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul has security flaws that put user data at "critical risk" despite recent government assurances it is safe to use, a respected security expert said on Tuesday.

"There are actual, live vulnerabilities on the site now," David Kennedy, head of computer security consulting firm TrustedSec LLC, told Reuters before testifying at a congressional hearing on the topic "Is My Data on HealthCare.gov Secure?"

Kennedy, a former U.S. Marine Corps cyber-intelligence analyst, presented a 17-page report describing the problems to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. It does not go into specifics in some areas, he said, because that could provide criminals with a blueprint for launching attacks.

The website is an online exchange that allows consumers to shop for insurance plans under Obama's Affordable Care Act, which mandated that Americans have health insurance and created new marketplaces to buy and sell policies.

The site has been bedeviled by technical glitches since its launch on Oct. 1, although Obama administration officials have said they are getting on top of the problems.

"There is a lot of stuff that we are not publicly disclosing because of the criticality of the findings," Kennedy said. "We don't want to hurt people."

When asked to describe the severity of the threat that they posed to the public, he said it was a "critical risk."

The HealthCare.gov site collects data including the names, birth dates, social security numbers, email addresses and healthcare information about its users that criminals could use to engage in a wide variety of scams.

"The Obama administration has a responsibility to ensure that the personal and financial data collected by the government is secure," said Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House committee.

"Unfortunately, in their haste to launch the HealthCare.gov website, it appears the administration cut corners that leaves the site open to hackers and other online criminals."

The Obama administration said on Tuesday the website was safe to use.

IDENTIFYING VULNERABILITIES

Kennedy was one of the first security experts to identify vulnerabilities that the site poses to the security of user data, describing them on his company's blog shortly after its Oct. 1 launch.

The site lets people know invalid user names when logging in, allowing attackers to identify user IDs for the site, according to the report prepared for Tuesday's hearing. It also describes more technical bugs that could lead to attacks.

Kennedy said in making his assessment he had used tools that allowed him to remotely view the site's software, code and architecture without needing credentials to log on to its server.

In October, a Sept. 27 government memorandum surfaced in which two Department of Health and Human Services officials said the security of the site had not been properly tested before its launch, creating "a high risk."

HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said then that steps had been taken to ease security concerns since the memo was written, and that consumer data was secure.

Peters reiterated those assurances on Tuesday.

"When consumers fill out their online Marketplace applications, they can trust that the information that they are providing is protected by stringent security standards," she said.

"Security testing happens on an ongoing basis using industry best practices to appropriately safeguard consumers' personal information," she said.

The Department of Homeland Security said last week that authorities were investigating more than a dozen cybersecurity incidents targeting HealthCare.gov.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Jeffrey Benkoe, Ross Colvin and Jim Loney)