What happened with the HealthCare.gov security breach

A July intrusion place malicious code on a poorly protected test server, but HHS officials say no data was compromised.

HealthCare.gov Screenshot, September 2014

Hackers breached the HealthCare.gov system in July, according to officials at the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Homeland Security. Federal officials had no evidence of information being compromised, and it's unclear if HealthCare.gov was specifically targeted for the trove of personal and financial information on Americans that it contains. The news was first reported Sept. 4 in the Wall Street Journal.

The intrusion resulted in the implantation of malicious files on a test server designed to launch denial of service attacks on other sites. This is a garden-variety type of attack in which computer networks are co-opted to act as bots and lock up the activity of targeted networks.

"Our review indicates that the server did not contain consumer personal information; data was not transmitted outside the agency, and the website was not specifically targeted. We have taken measures to further strengthen security," a HHS spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The attack was first detected Aug. 25 during a CMS security review of system activity. The intrusion was reported internally at the Department of Health and Human Services to the agency's leadership, the Office of Inspector General and the Computer Security Incident Response Center. The attack was not designed to export personally identifiable information, according to CMS.

The Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team is investigating the case. Their analysis discovered the malicious software, and concluded that the intrusion was limited to a single machine, according to a DHS official. The FBI is also investigating.

"At their request, [U.S. CERT] worked with HHS to analyze and mitigate the effects of a Distributed Denial of Service malware package and there is no indication that any data was compromised at this time. DHS will continue to monitor the situation and help develop and implement precautionary mitigation strategies as necessary," DHS spokesperson S.Y. Lee said in a statement.

The victimized server was not intended to be connected to the Internet, according to the Wall Street Journal report. The security settings were low, and the system was only protected by a default, out-of-the-box password, according to the report. No attack ever emanated from the compromised servers, according to multiple government sources.

"If this happened anywhere other than HealthCare.gov, it wouldn't be news," a senior DHS official told the Wall Street Journal.

But because it did happen on HealthCare.gov, the intrusion is attracting the attention of Congress. Many members, including staunch opponents of the Affordable Care Act that is supported by the HealthCare.gov website, are quick to point out that the site was given an authority to operate seal of approval over the objections of some security experts at CMS.

"Sadly, the news that HealthCare.gov has been hacked does not come as a surprise," said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "For months we have been demanding answers and transparency about the status of building and securing the exchange and our requests have been repeatedly met with resistance."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee was also unsurprised. “For nearly a year, the Administration has dismissed concerns about the security of HealthCare.gov, even as it obstructed Congressional oversight of the issue," he said in a written statement. CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner will testify before Issa's committee on Sept. 18.

News of the intrusion comes amid reports of other high-profile breaches, including an attack on Home Depot and the leak of racy celebrity selfies via penetration of iCloud accounts. It also comes as CMS is gearing up for the second open enrollment season for Americans who get insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Millions of enrollees are going to be invited to renew, update, or change their coverage. Concern for the continuity of the IT infrastructure recently prompted CMS to extend the contract of Accenture, which handles much of the development behind HealthCare.gov's enrollment and plan selection functions.

According to CMS, the intrusion will have no impact on the open enrollment.

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