Data Privacy Scare On HealthCare.gov
When the inside threat is your own system
Had you asked me last week whether the situation for the federal government's embattled insurance marketplace website, HealthCare.gov, could get any worse, I probably would have said, "I don't see how." Today, I'm not so sure.
On a very personal level, I have done more than just peruse HealthCare.gov over the past month. I actually created an account. After three sets of username and password combinations and more than three hours spread across two days, I finally completed the account creation process -- or, should I say, the account creation process finally worked. I found the process to be as was widely reported: disjointed, clunky, and largely broken. If I had been my father, I would never have been able to complete the process. (Sorry, Dad.)
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As you might expect, the process did nothing to inspire confidence, much less assuage my fears for the security of my own personal information.
Serious concerns for the personal data privacy of HealthCare.gov users began to increase significantly two weeks prior to the launch of the federal government's website. The State of Minnesota's new health insurance exchange had its own privacy breach, causing many to question whether the systems were ready for prime time (see "The Breach In The Ointment Of The Affordable Care Act"). The recent Congressional oversight hearings on the HealthCare.gov rollout brought data privacy concerns to the forefront as political leaders on both sides of the aisle grilled Health and Human Services heads over security testing of the website. And finally, somehow, White House press secretary Jay Carney's reassurance that "consumers can trust that their information is protected by stringent security standards" didn't make me feel any more confident.
As if on cue, reports surfaced late Saturday that one HealthCare.gov user received eligibility letters via the website addressed to and intended for other HealthCare.gov users. While this one incident does not constitute a major breach in terms of number of personal records exposed, it does call into question the integrity of a back-end system that would serve up documents belonging to another user. And if this turned out to be a widespread problem, the consequences could be serious.
Since I exerted significant time and energy in acquiring a HealthCare.gov account, I didn't want all of that effort to be for naught. I logged into the system to see whether I had any eligibility notices and if, by chance, they belonged to someone else. When my applications page came up, I found that I did have an eligibility notice waiting for me. But when I downloaded it, sadly, I found it was addressed to me and no one else.
Given the high profile of the health-care debate and the enormous political capital at stake, you can be sure every self-proclaimed hacker worth her salt is banging away at HealthCare.gov, looking to uncover any vulnerability. If there are security deficiencies, then they are sure to be found quickly and exploited.
I guess the good news from my personal testing is we now know the problem with misdirected eligibility letters is not 100 percent pervasive. The bad news is we now know that HealthCare.gov is its own greatest inside threat.