Risk
7/13/2011
11:28 AM
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P2P Networks Expose Healthcare Data To Identity Theft

File-sharing software can open healthcare organization networks to criminal activity.

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Even as healthcare organizations spend lots of money and time to protect their data from hackers, viruses, and malware, they may be overlooking a non-malicious vulnerability: employees using peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks on their work computers.

The challenge with peer-to-peer sharing is that it is not malware, according to Todd Davis, CEO of LifeLock, a consumer-facing identity theft protection company. "It's legal to download peer-to-peer software," Davis said in an interview. Illegal behavior usually is related to downloading copyrighted materials with the software, but the software itself is legal.

But the act of installing such software could open up networks to data theft. "They accepted the terms and conditions," Davis said. Those terms could include things such as providing access to a protected database, but few people take the time to read the fine print. "Now my entire network has potentially been compromised," Davis explained.

Antivirus software won't prevent an employee inadvertently granting access to the network. "It doesn't matter what firewall you have," Davis said.

Davis said healthcare enterprises are particularly good targets of identity thieves because of the amount of information collected from patients, including social security numbers, financial records, and health insurance IDs. "Criminals know," Davis said. "They attack healthcare providers," he added.

"The other valuable piece is diagnosis codes." Someone being treated for pain or certain mental health conditions might be on a controlled substance. A criminal who can obtain a diagnosis and a valid insurance number could easily order a 90-day supply of a painkiller or a "lifestyle" drug such as Viagra through a mail-order pharmacy before the victim places an order, Davis said. "Anything that has street value" is what they target, he said.

Other than educating staff about the risks of peer-to-peer networks and spending a lot of money to encrypt data, there is not a whole lot healthcare organizations can do to prevent such attacks, Davis said. He noted that the typical response is to offer credit monitoring services to individuals whose information may have been exposed, but that is not a preventive step.

"Credit monitoring just notifies you after the fact, after there is a change in your credit status," Davis said. "What companies are realizing is, they need to be more proactive." Their credibility is on the line.

Hospitals and large organizations can struggle to meet this threat, and it's even more difficult for small providers. "The dentist's office doesn't have a privacy officer or an encryption specialist," Davis noted.

Davis reports seeing some healthcare organizations buying LifeLock services for employees, which is more proactive than the standard credit monitoring. This does not, however, address theft of nonemployee patient records.

According to Davis, companies have been cognizant of having to protect data, but don't always understand exactly what they have to do. He recommends setting up "in case of emergency, break glass" plans, including the names of whom to contact to mitigate damage should a breach occur, but that, too, is a reactive response.

Providers do not always know what data elements they need to protect, Davis said. A particular point of confusion is the so-called Red Flags rule, a Federal Trade Commission regulation that requires certain companies and organizations to develop written plans to prevent and detect identity theft.

The FTC has suspended enforcement of the rule multiple times after doctor and hospital groups complained, but a law enacted in December 2010 specifically exempts healthcare providers when they accept insurance. Several physician organizations have sued the FTC to prevent them being considered "creditors" in other cases, so uncertainly lingers. "They aren't really sure of what their responsibilities are or what steps they have to take," Davis said.

"Nobody's really cracked the code" on how to protect small and midsized businesses, Davis said, but he expects innovation to catch up with this threat soon. "I think you're going to see a progression of technologies around the Red Flags rule," he predicted.

In the new, all-digital InformationWeek Healthcare: iPads are leading a new wave of devices into the exam room. Are security, tech support, and infection control up to the task? Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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