Will Healthcare Ever Take IT Security Seriously?

A recent threat intelligence study reports widespread security vulnerabilities in healthcare organizations, many of which went unnoticed for months. In December, a developer pulled unencrypted data from a 'certified' mobile health app in less than a minute. Why is it so hard for healthcare to get security right?

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Wed, February 26, 2014

CIO — In the years since the HITECH Act, the number of reported healthcare data breaches has been on the rise — partly because organizations have been required to disclose breaches that, in the past, would have gone unreported and partly because healthcare IT security remains a challenge.

ill Healthcare Ever Take IT Security Seriously

Recent research from Experian suggests that 2014 may be the worst year yet for healthcare data breaches, due in part to the vulnerability of the poorly assembled Healthcare.gov.

"The volume of IPs detected in this sample can be extrapolated to assume that there are millions of compromised healthcare organizations, applications, devices and systems sending malicious packets from around the globe."

Hacks and other acts of thievery get the attention, but the root cause of most healthcare data breaches is carelessness: Lost or stolen hardware that no one bothered to encrypt, protected health information emailed or otherwise exposed on the Internet, paper records left on the subway and so on.

What will it take for healthcare to take data security seriously?

Healthcare IT So Insecure It's 'Alarming'

Part of the problem is that healthcare information security gets no respect; at most healthcare organizations, security programs are immature at best, thanks to scarce funding and expertise. As a result, the majority of reported data breaches are, in fact, avoidable events.

[Related: Healthcare IT Security Is Difficult, But Not Impossible]

The recent SANS Health Care Cyber Threat Report underscores this point all too well. Threat intelligence vendor Norse, through its global network or honeypots and sensors, discovered almost 50,000 unique malicious events between September 2012 and October 2013, according to the SANS Institute, which analyzed Norse's data and released its report on Feb. 19. The vast majority of affected institutions were healthcare providers (72 percent), followed by healthcare business associates (10 percent) and payers (6 percent).

SANS uses the words "alarming" and "troubling" often in its analysis. "The sheer volume of IPs detected in this targeted sample can be extrapolated to assume that there are, in fact, millions of compromised health care organizations, applications, devices and systems sending malicious packets from around the globe," writes Senior SANS Analyst and Healthcare Specialist Barbara Filkins.

[ Tips: How to Prevent (and Respond to) a Healthcare Data Breach ]

More than half of that malevolent traffic came from network-edge devices such as VPNs (a whopping 33 percent), firewalls (16 percent) and routers (7 percent), suggesting "that the security devices and applications themselves were either compromised … or that these 'protection' systems are not detecting malicious traffic coming from the network endpoints inside the protected perimeter," Filkins writes, noting that many vulnerabilities went unnoticed for months. Connected endpoints such as radiology imaging software and digital video systems also accounted for 17 percent of malicious traffic.

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