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Tom Gillis
Tom Gillis
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What Enterprises Can Learn from Medical Device Security

In today's cloud-native world, organizations need a highly distributed approach that ties security to the workload itself in order to prevent targeted attacks.

Recently, I had an enlightening conversation with a customer who works at a medical device manufacturer of laboratory diagnostic equipment. This company has thousands of medical devices in the field — visualize racks of test tubes, all computerized with a large instrument and a Windows system that's running the test equipment in the hospital.

Scott T. Nichols is responsible for product privacy and security at this company, which means it's his job to figure out how that data — each patient's name, Social Security number, and test results (basically, the most sensitive data there is) — remains protected.

The interesting thing about this situation is that these devices are computers that sit on a trustworthy network in someone else's data center or network. That means the company doesn't control the firewall, so there's a lot of risk involved in keeping its devices secure. Think about the latest outbreak of ransomware. What can this company do to assure customers and shareholders that its equipment (and everyone who uses it) is not vulnerable to these attacks?

And in this case, it's not just malware. There's the very real threat of targeted attacks. In the hospital environment, we see attacks that are directed at individual doctors, hospital administrators, and other staff members. These attacks come from within — not a bad attacker coming over a firewall. Consider this common scenario: A field tech comes in to get a report using a USB stick and that drive is infected, so even though it's separate from the network, it provides a way for a sophisticated attack to get in. Therefore, even in a closed-circuit system with an isolated network for medical devices, malware can still get in.

"The threat is people," says Nichols. "People are the weakest link." He's right: People are always the weakest link and always will be. They are trusting, hardworking, and earnest — they don't realize what they are doing is oftentimes propagating infection.

How can this company respond? As Nichols figured out, it needs a new approach to security — one that doesn't protect the network alone or rely on a physical perimeter.

Thus, the company implemented an "onion" strategy, with several layers of protection attached to an individual workload. At the heart of this strategy is the data layer, where it uses encryption of data on the device itself. Think of it as the crown in a castle that needs to be protected. Imagine building a safe for the crown inside the castle and then a moat all around the castle. Protecting the data layer is the network layer, where firewalling turns network security on and off. After the network layer is the server layer, which allows only applications that are recognized. On top of that is the user layer, where access controls allow the company to see who logged in and who logged out, check their user ID, and add password complexity requirements. They also put protections on the back end.

Why was I so fascinated with this example? It's obvious: The parallel is very similar to what the enterprise faces as it moves to the cloud. The workload is put in an environment that the enterprise doesn’t control. The traditional controls for security are dissolving and the self-service model has made it even worse, igniting a blurred separation of duties.

The enterprise needs a new model. It needs to rip a page from the playbook of this medical device company and implement the same kind of highly distributed security approach that's tied to the workload itself. I'm hardly the only one who's thinking this. A recently published Gartner report says security needs to be attached to the workload and to be multilayered — looking at data, network, computing, and users.

Migrating a workload to the cloud is like moving from one house to another: If you simply box up everything and move it to the new address, you are missing a major opportunity to clean up the old and make way for the new, an opportunity to streamline operations and to improve the effectiveness of your defenses. In the worst case, migrating a workload without revisiting the security controls can expose new vulnerabilities that were never even possible before, such as the often-experienced data leakage that comes from a misconfigured S3 bucket on Amazon that publishes sensitive data to the public Internet.  

In a cloud-native world, we have an opportunity to implement security controls that are:

  1. Fully automated
  2. Host-centric
  3. Auto-scaling
  4. Immutable
  5. Independent of infrastructure

The multitenant public cloud has revolutionized IT. For the security team, it's a new world with a new set of constraints and a new set of possibilities. The medical device community has been operating in this mindset for some time, and there are lessons to be learned from them on building a cloud-native security architecture.  

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Tom Gillis co-founded Bracket Computing with the goal of delivering enterprise computing driven by business needs, not hardware limitations. Prior to Bracket, Tom was vice present/general manager of Cisco's Security Technology Group, leading business units responsible for ... View Full Bio
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