Will “Digital Fingerprint” Forensics Thwart the Data Thieves Lurking in Hospital EHR Corridors?

Guest post by Donald Voltz, MD, Aultman Hospital, Department of Anesthesiology, Medical Director of the Main Operating Room, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, Case Western Reserve University and Northeast Ohio Medical University.

 Donald Voltz, MD
Donald Voltz, MD

As Halloween approaches, the usual spate of horror movies will intrigue audiences across the US, replete with slashers named Jason or Freddie running amuck in the corridors of all too easily accessible hospitals. They grab a hospital gown and the zombies fit right in. While this is just a movie you can turn off, the real horror of patient data theft can follow you.

(I know how terrible this type of crime can be. I myself have been the victim of a data theft by hackers who stole my deceased father’s medical files, running up more than $300,000 in false charges. I am still disputing on-going bills that have been accruing for the last 15 years).

Unfortunately, this horror movie scenario is similar to how data thefts often occur at medical facilities. In 2015, the healthcare industry was one of the top three hardest hit industries with serious data breaches and major attacks, along with government and manufacturers. Packed with a wealth of exploitable information such as credit card data, email addresses, Social Security numbers, employment information and medical history records, much of which will remain valid for years, if not decades and fetch a high price on the black market.

Who Are The Hackers?

It is commonly believed attacks are from outside intruders looking to steal valuable patient data and 45 percent of the hacks are external. However, “phantom” hackers are also often your colleagues, employees and business associates who are unwittingly careless in the use of passwords or lured by phishing schemes that open the door for data thieves. Not only is data stolen, but privacy violations are insidious.

The problem is not only high-tech, but also low-tech, requiring that providers across the continuum simply become smarter about data protection and privacy issues. Medical facilities are finding they must teach doctors and nurses not to click on suspicious links.

To thwart accidental and purposeful hackers, organizations should implement physical security procedures to secure network hardware and storage media through measures like maintaining a visitor log and installing security cameras. Also limiting physical access to server rooms and restricting the ability to remove devices from secure areas. Yes, humans are the weakest link.

Growing Nightmare

Medical data theft is a growing national nightmare. IDC’s Health Insights group predicts that one in three healthcare recipients will be the victim of a medical data breach in 2016. Other surveys found that in the last two years, 89 percent of healthcare organizations reported at least one data breach, with 79 percent reporting two or more breaches. The most commonly compromised data are medical records, followed by billing and insurance records. The average cost of a healthcare data breach is about $2.2 million.

At health insurer Anthem, Inc., foreign hackers stole up to 80 million records using social engineering to dig their way into the company’s network using the credentials of five tech workers. The hackers stole names, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information, but were thwarted when an Anthem computer system administrator discovered outsiders were using his own security credentials to log into the company system and to hack databases.

Investigators believe the hackers somehow compromised the tech worker’s security through a phishing scheme that tricked the employee into unknowingly revealing a password or downloading malicious software. Using this login information, they were able to access the company’s database and steal files.

Healthcare Hacks Spread Hospital Mayhem in Diabolical Ways

Not only is current patient data security an issue, but thieves can also drain the electronic economic blood from hospitals’ jugular vein—its IT systems. Hospitals increasingly rely on cloud delivery of big enterprise data from start-ups like iCare that can predict epidemics, cure disease, and avoid preventable deaths. They also add Personal Health Record apps to the system from fitness apps like FitBit and Jawbone.

Banner Health, operating 29 hospitals in Arizona, had to notify millions of individuals that their data was exposed. The breach began when hackers gained access to payment card processing systems at some of its food and beverage outlets. That apparently also opened the door to the attackers accessing a variety of healthcare-related information.

Because Banner Health says its breach began with an attack on payment systems, it differentiates from other recent hacker breaches. While payment system attacks have plagued the retail sector, they are almost unheard of by healthcare entities.

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