Healthcare organizations face unique security challenges

doctor tablet
NEC Corp. of America (CC BY 2.0)

Healthcare organizations today are facing a new and unique set of challenges. Their recently-digitized healthcare records have turned out to be extremely valuable to criminals, while hospitals, clinics, and other organizations are still learning how to protect them.

Plus, healthcare organizations have additional challenges that they're facing on top of that.

Personnel issues

In hospitals, doctors' offices, insurance companies, and other related organizations, a large number of people need access to patient records to do their jobs.

Some of these employees are temporary, or visiting from partner organizations, or have recently changed roles, said Gary Palgon, vice president of healthcare solutions at Atlanta-based Liaison Technologies.

"So access control needs to be maintained to maintain proper security," he said.

Mobile device issues

Healthcare organizations have sensitive data spread across a number of devices, not just servers and desktops but also laptops, mobile devices, and specialized devices for inputting medical record data.

"All devices with sensitive data should be able to be encrypted at all times and have the ability to remotely wipe devices when lost," said Palgon. "Most organizations have capabilities to encrypt laptops and are beginning to gain access to technologies to protect other mobile devices, but not all have successfully rolled them out."

According to the most recent Healthcare Breach Report from Bitglass, 68 percent of all healthcare data breaches since 2010 were due to device theft or loss.

"We’ve been hearing of far too many stories of laptops being stolen from clinician’s cars or offices," said Ananth Balasubramanian, head of vertical solutions at  CommVault Systems.

Healthcare organizations need to have processes in place so that they would quickly learn about the loss, wipe the data remotely, and provision a replacement laptop so that the clinician could go back to work, he said.

Medical equipment issues

Healthcare organizations also have specialized medical equipment that could pose particular security challenges.

Medical devices are closed systems, that cannot be easily scanned for malware, said Carl Wright, general manager at TrapX.

"As FDA certified systems, they are not open for the installation of additional third-party software by the hospital staff," he said. But they are vulnerable to some threats.

For example, he said, in one case his company analyzed, a hospital staffer clicked on a link in an email which installed a worm. The worm spread through the hospital's network and then hid inside the medical devices.

The IT team thought it caught the worm everywhere and cleaned it out, but missed the infections inside the devices, where the worm then created a back door into the hospital.

"From there, the attacker was able to move carefully within the hospital network to identify and exfiltrate key data," Wright said. "The standard hospital cyber security suite could not scan or detect any activity within the medical device."

TrapX recently found similar attacks in three separate hospitals' X-ray equipment, blood gas analyzers and other devices.

HiTrust framework addresses healthcare industry

To help healthcare organizations create and maintain a robust security process, the HiTrust Alliance has created a security framework that incorporates best practices and recommendations from NIST, HIPAA, and other regulations and frameworks into one uniform framework.

About 80 percent of hospitals and insurance companies use this framework, said HiTrust CEO Daniel Nutkis.

"There is no question that organizations that are following strong security controls are less likely to have breaches," he added.

The organization also collects breach data, in an attempt to understand how effective each control is.

"We're trying to reduce the costs of cyber insurance for organizations that have good controls in place," he said.

And, after each breach, the organization goes back and reviews the framework and makes changes when necessary.

"We're always adding updates," he said.

For example, the framework has recently focused more on ongoing compliance, he said. "It's not just how well you've implemented the control, but how effectively you're managing it."

For example, monitoring end user behavior is an important part of the process, he said.

"Most of the recent breaches involved an end user problem," he said. "How do we make sure that the end users are engaged in the process?"

Unfortunately, there's only so much that an organization can do.

Mark Ford, the life sciences and health care cyber risk services leader at Deloitte & Touche, recalls a recent case in which a physician took his laptop home and it was stolen from his house.

"He had a lot of patient information on his laptop, and had that laptop encrypted, as he should have," Ford said. "But he put a sticky with the password on the laptop."

All the education and all the tools didn't prevent that breach, Ford said, reminding organization that not only do they need to have processes and procedures in place to prevent breaches, but also plans in place for what to do once they occur.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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