An academic exercise by a security researcher blossomed into a live-fire infosec emergency last month, after a major vulnerability was found in a central U.S. government healthcare database system.
Georgia Tech graduate student Doug Mackey didn't set out to fix a potentially disastrous issue in a major government healthcare records system originally, he'd simply meant to outline the relative vulnerability of large government computer systems in general to attacks by foreign governments, as a final project for a Master's in Information Security degree.
He settled on the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA, an open-source framework used by the Department of Veterans Affairs as a test case. The VA says it's the single largest integrated healthcare system in the U.S., serving 6 million patients per year.
"As much as possible for an independent researcher I wanted to study the security of software used within a real system in a critical economic sector," he says. "The Health sector and VistA were chosen because VistA is open source and all the source code is easily available. Using the open source code I set-up an isolated lab test system to study."
Mackey's code review found an alarming vulnerability in VistA that could have been used to execute "thousands" of remote commands, without any authorization, on these health records databases. But at first, he had trouble sounding the alarm.
"After I found the vulnerability I first reached out to [the] U.S. [Computer Emergency Readiness Team] but got no reply, I then reached out to the U.S. VA Office of Inspector General but also got no reply," he says.
Finally, a post to an open-source developer's forum for VistA got results. The non-profit Open Source Electronic Health Record corporation which works to support independent development of VistA and maintain compatibility with the VA's own implementation of the software led the way in creating an emergency patch, which has since been made publicly available for all VistA users.
Mackey an accomplished information security specialist who has worked for Australia's Department of Defense says that the open source nature of VistA was instrumental in allowing the problem to be fixed in this case.
"The vulnerability has been there for many years and likely would have remained there unknown and undiscovered for years to come," he says.
He acknowledges, however, that open-source might not be a panacea for this type of issue, and that there are both positive and negative aspects of open-source use in critical systems.
"On the one hand it can spur innovation and allow interested independent researchers to contribute," Mackey says. "However, on the other hand, it allows potential hostile actors access to details of your system's operation."
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