Healthcare Is Ignoring Cyber Risk Intel, Academia Even Worse

Healthcare and other sectors are indolently ignoring the process of gathering and using high-level intelligence to focus cyber defenses. Here’s proof.

Jason Polancich, CEO, Musubu

March 31, 2015

5 Min Read

For all of 2013 and 2014, the healthcare sector was abuzz with cyber activity invisible to most. As the weeks rolled by, the cyber event data collected and analyzed by our analytic data warehouse increasingly brought an image into sharp focus -- and it was beginning to look a lot like an active radar console of the skies over Iraq circa 1991.

Each day, small blips appeared and disappeared all over the place in what first seemed to be scattered and random cybercrime “noise.” On closer inspection, hints of a pattern emerged and I began to get a real sense that, even if disconnected from one another individually, the blips represented a purposeful, somehow organized campaign to achieve a set of shared objectives based on intelligence, planning and an overall strategy.

Much like the allied air campaign that led to the softening and exploitation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi defense in preparation for Operation Desert Storm, this was a cybercrime campaign waged by informed and (even if informally) aligned participants designed to soften defenses and exploit assets of their chosen target: the data-rich environment that is the healthcare industry itself and its customers.

Worse yet, it was clear to me that healthcare had no clue what was coming.

Each day, I watched the individual attackers hit their targets. Almost always, they were small and seemingly insignificant ones like local dentists, small consulting firms specializing in healthcare IT, 3-hospital chains in the Pacific Northwest, plastic surgery clinics, tiny regional hospitals in out of the way parts of your own state, dialysis center chains in the southeast, 5-person insurance claims processing shops, one-off hospital websites in the midwest and even emergency vets just for reptiles. (Yes, they have those.)

Digging deeper, the manner in which the attacks were carried out was demonstrating a pattern, too.

Networks were being breached, but not by brute force. In fact, the attacks were not particularly sophisticated at all, but they were carried out deftly. Overlooked back doors in supply chains were being exploited, 3rd party software with unchecked permissions were used to easily gain access, employees with access to networks were phished and their system privileges used to extract data, web applications with network and database access ran with default passwords and incorrect permissions, and obvious software and network configurations persisted unchecked. All veritable open doors.

All in all, the hits revealed a set of skilled adversaries focused on particular targets for well-defined reasons. For example, healthcare typically is:

  • Full of high-value, personal data “in motion” for things like identity theft, credit fraud, illegal drug trade and intellectual property;

  • Dominated by small businesses;

  • An industry with many individual employees and patients, thus exploitable, moving parts;

  • A user of an increasing amount of technical solutions touched by employees and patients;

  • Reliant on a true myriad of technology vendors and mostly second, third-party tools; 

  • Heavily (overly) regulated thus less agile in defense;

  • Not focused on cyber as a core value -- rather, they are rightly focused on their core mission of treating people and disease.

It was also clear the attackers were evaluating the success and failure of a fixed set of attack methods designed for ease of use, low cost and big payoff; they were testing their most likely approaches in support of heavy reuse in a broader phase of campaigns to come.

Now, in 2015, with breaches at Anthem, Premera and whatever is news next week, everything I saw on my cyber radar is becoming very clear, too - albeit in retrospect - to the industry as a whole. Surely, the security operations across the sector must be seeing this too, right? Wrong.

Tone deaf
In my day job, as I meet each week with companies and their cybersecurity teams to exchange info and talk about the benefits of practical cyber intelligence functions inside their business organizations, that data has shown an equally clear and bothersome image.

Healthcare, much like most other sectors throwing their hands up against an impossible cyber defense task, is indolently ignoring the process of gathering and using important, high-level intelligence to focus and tune their cyber defenses against immediate and trending threats. Intelligence that, if only observed, reads like a weekly report about what to focus energies on, what to check right now and, very specifically, what to defend against today.

Worse than indolence, my meetings have shown me that, most often, organizations prize high-cost, specialized tools, countless alerts and mountains of low-level log and threat data over anything else. They have been - and still are - too focused on “edge-case” threats independent of any specific risk relevance for their specific businesses.

To me, it’s like choosing to look through thousands of keyholes to try and paint a picture of what’s outside the house when you have a system of imagery satellites in geosynchronous orbit. What’s more, I’ve found most businesses prefer a very broad-spectrum “cover the waterfront” cyber defense mixed with just this kind of inconsistent, niche-focused emphasis on highly specific threats that have little true risk relevance for them. To say it another way, they spend on whatever everyone else is spending on at the macro level and get distracted into expending far too much energy worrying about micro threats for which they have little compelling evidence to support being a real threat to them at all.

In fact, I believe we’ve yet to see the real fever pitch of the cyber war on the healthcare and its consumers. Even more worrisome, my figurative cyber radar is now lighting up in early 2015 around another market sector -- academia—where a quick look at the most recent data offers some remarkably similar images to those seen in healthcare.

With deep, wide supply chains that often include defense, government and commercial research, as well as “customers” almost as numerous as healthcare, academia is also a target-rich, data-filled environment. And as bad as healthcare as a whole has been about cyberdefense, academia is arguably even more ill-prepared to practice diligent and coordinated cyber intelligence.


The sad truth is that practical cyber risk intelligence can help in both sectors – and probably many others -- if only we would put it to work.

About the Author(s)

Jason Polancich

CEO, Musubu

Jason Polancich is co-founder, app designer and digital marketing lead for Polancich is also a linguist, software engineer, data scientist, and intelligence analyst. He originally founded HackSurfer/SurfWatch Labs (Pre-VC), a cyber analytics firm founded in 2013 that provides highly accurate, timely and actionable information to businesses about cybercrime threats. Polancich is also the founder and lead architect of VandalsSmile, a data-driven, small business marketing and lead generation network making big data work practically and usefully for owners.

Polancich is a serial entrepreneur focused on solving complex Internet commerce, data analysis, and cyber-defense problems. Novii Design, a company he co-founded in 2005 with Rebekah Lewis-Polancich, was based on his contributions to cloud architectures, distributed computing, data analysis and systems integration. The company assisted the US intelligence community and Department of Defense in building some of the largest data warehouse and analysis systems ever put into operation within the government and defense contracting sectors. Novii Design was sold to Six3/CACI in 2010. Polancich is also a service-disabled veteran of the U.S. Army. 

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