Healthcare organizations are rife with insecurity, and it's only a question of when a Target-like attack puts millions of patient health information (PHI) files on the black market, a new study suggests.
A large-scale attack within the healthcare industry could put patients' safety and lives at stake, cautioned Stephen Boyer, CTO of security rating firm BitSight Technology, in an interview. Despite increasing awareness about these risks, healthcare organizations far behind their peers in other vertical markets, Boyer said, citing a BitSight study titled Will Healthcare Be the Next Retail?, released May 28.
Of four industries the study analyzed, healthcare saw the largest surge in attacks and was slowest to respond, taking more than five days to remediate security issues. By comparison, finance took about 3.5 days, and retail and utilities combatted issues within approximately four days. Some healthcare organizations led the market, using best practices and adequate resources, but as a sector, healthcare is weaker than others.
According to Boyer, however, that may be improving. "I don't know of a major breach of healthcare records, but stay tuned. I know that certainly there's worry about privacy. I see more transparency going into the process and I think that's going to put the right incentives in place," he said. "The Target breach was just a watershed moment in the industry. It's changing conversations everywhere we go."
[Are you prepared for insider threats? Read Colleagues In Cuffs: When Employees Steal Patient Records.]
For its report, BitSight analyzed the security performance of Standard & Poor 500 firms based on data such as communication with a botnet, malware distribution, or spam propagation, and determined that last year, 82% of organizations suffered a security compromise. Within the finance, utilities, retail, and healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, healthcare showed the worst performance overall, according to the study.
PHI has real value to thieves. On the black market, Boyer said, a patient's electronic medical record sells for about $20; by comparison, credit card data sells for approximately $1 per card. Some patients could be embarrassed if their health records become public, opening them to blackmail or other victimization. Thieves also sell PHI to those without insurance.
"You can go and get healthcare. You can go and get treatment. You can buy drugs," Boyer said. "Obviously there's fraud. Those visits, those prescriptions, go on your record. That's moving cybertheft into life and death."
Unlike finance firms that have secured money since their earliest days, healthcare organizations are typically comparatively new to the world of data protection. Their mission is to deliver care, not safeguard bytes of data, Boyer explained, so awareness, cognition of the full range of insecurities, and resources are not available across the industry.
The Department of Health and Human Services tackled the issue with a stick: Bigger fines for breached organizations. Earlier this month, for instance, HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) settled a $4.8 million HIPAA breach case with New York and Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University. That scrutiny may only increase in light of retailers' recent breaches, according to Paul Trulove, VP of products at SailPoint.
"On the heels of such well-known data breaches at Target and even [more recent] news of the cyberattack on eBay, auditors are going to put even more scrutiny on healthcare organizations as the data they house is even more valuable than consumer data," he said in an interview.
Rules such as HIPAA and the HITECH Act have generally done a good job of protecting patient data. Often human error causes breaches, Michael Raggo, security evangelist at MobileIron, told InformationWeek.
"I will never say never, but the healthcare industry has seen a disproportionately low instance of cyberattacks, and rather a higher proportion of accidental data loss through well-intentioned but risky user behaviors on the device or lost devices. A major reason for a low instance of cyberattacks is because stringent HIPAA guidelines are a core part of the data security and compliance strategy of all healthcare organizations in the United States," Raggo said. "That said, cyberattacks are increasing, as are the number of attack vectors organizations need to protect."
Likewise, Boyer added, older healthcare systems may not include the latest technological safeguards. In fact, he pointed out, one healthcare official recently received an implementation pitch that included computers running Windows XP, an operating system Microsoft no longer supports with security upgrades.
"I know there are some key conversations going on now on things that will improve [healthcare security]," he said. "I'm less optimistic they'll happen quickly. This is not a super agile environment inside hospitals and health organizations. It's going to be difficult to turn around."
If a big breach occurs within healthcare, Boyer warned, patients could react by switching providers or insurers, or being less forthcoming with physicians -- even to the detriment of their health.
Download Healthcare IT In The Obamacare Era, the InformationWeek Healthcare digital issue on changes driven by regulation. Modern technology created the opportunity to restructure the healthcare industry around accountable care organizations, but ACOs also put new demands on IT.Alison Diana has written about technology and business for more than 20 years. She was editor, contributors, at Internet Evolution; editor-in-chief of 21st Century IT; and managing editor, sections, at CRN. She has also written for eWeek, Baseline Magazine, Redmond Channel ... View Full Bio