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Escalating Cyber-Attacks Threaten U.S. Health Care Systems

Authors warn of approaching ‘tsunami’ of medical identity theft

Cyber-criminals — from unhappy employees to the most sophisticated hackers — are targeting health care data, according to a report posted on the DarkReading website. And no health care organization, from an 18-bed county hospital in Illinois to health care insurer CareFirst to insurance giant Anthem, is immune to these attacks. Criminals want to seize medical data either to make a profit or to expose the security vulnerabilities of the U.S. health care system, reporters Rick Kam and Larry Ponemon warn.

The motivations are more complex for politically minded criminals. The recent Sony breach related to a movie that ridiculed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un became a model for many of the new risks surrounding cyber-attacks and the resulting data breaches: disruption of business operations; intellectual property theft; public embarrassment; and damaged relationships with business partners, clients, and employees.

The recent Anthem breach revealed another threat. There was speculation that organized cyber-criminals may hold health care records for ransom, demanding payment for not releasing the information online or to other criminal groups.

Health care records are prime targets for criminals because they recognize that health care organizations lack the resources, processes, and technologies to prevent and detect attacks, and thus protect patient data, the report says. It’s no surprise, then, that criminal attacks are up 125% since 2010, according to study data. For the first time, criminal attacks are now the primary cause of data breaches, rather than user negligence or carelessness, or system glitches.

According to John Riggi, section chief of the FBI's Cyber Division, criminals often use personal social media profiles to craft effective “spear phishing” attacks, a tactic that occurred in 88% of health care organizations in a recent study as a means for gaining access. They then simply “phone home” while escalating privileges and building a network map. Once data are “exfiltrated,” they use the Dark Web to sell the stolen information. (The Dark Web is the part of the Internet that is inaccessible to conventional search engines and, consequently, to most users.)

Riggi also told DarkReading that cyber threats by both nation-states and organized crime are growing, mostly from Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and Iran.

Tom Turner, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Bitsight Technologies, an organization that rates companies on cyber-security, said he is worried about the security of his own health care records.

“Health care is absolutely performing at the bottom of the other industries,” Turner told CBS News. “If you’d like a letter grade for that, maybe a C or D.”

Highly motivated criminals are realizing and exploiting the political and financial value of health care data, putting patients’ medical and financial health in jeopardy, Kam and Ponemon say. “Unless health care organizations become as adept at protecting patient data as criminals are at attacking it, the U.S. could experience a tsunami of health care data breaches and medical identity theft,” they conclude.

Source: DarkReading; May 27, 2015.


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