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Vulnerabilities / Threats

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Mike Wilson
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How Healthcare Organizations Can Combat Ransomware

The days of healthcare organizations relying solely on endpoint security software to stop attacks are over. Here are six ways that healthcare providers can fight the ever-present threat.

Editor's note: Go here for breaking news on this topic. 

The recent United Health Services (UHS) cyberattack highlights that the healthcare industry is a prime target for cybercriminals. This breach was caused by ransomware thought to have been delivered by email from a phishing link. Recent research from Microsoft identified ransomware as a significant, growing threat that all industries must be mindful of.

Healthcare organizations rely on their digital systems with everything from electronic health records and diagnostic capabilities to networked medical devices interconnected. If a ransomware attack is successful, in addition to potential HIPAA violations, it could prevent a hospital from treating patients, which might eventually cost lives. Due to the potential implications, hospitals are increasingly a target of cybercriminals. While healthcare organizations have started to modernize their security infrastructure, many are still in the early stages of this transformation to deal with these sophisticated threats. This coupled with email's pervasiveness makes hospitals a prime target for a successful ransomware attack.

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Healthcare security is a complicated problem with no one perfect solution. However, there is a series of steps they can take to shore up their defenses and mitigate the risks of a successful cyberattack.

  1. Adopt a layered approach to cybersecurity: This strategic shift is vital in the defense against the growing number of sophisticated attacks, including ransomware. Doing this requires integrating various tools, including antivirus, firewalls and web filters, and screening for malicious activity to minimize the risk. Adopting a layered cybersecurity strategy reduces the vulnerabilities within the healthcare network.

  2. Rethink business continuity: For healthcare enterprises where data has life or death implications, it's critical that the business continuity plan reflects that fact. Backing up sensitive patient data weekly or even daily is not sufficient in healthcare, and organizations should look for a continuous backup solution that allows them to treat sensitive information appropriately. It's important to note that when it comes to business continuity, one size doesn't fit all. Also, attackers have gotten very sophisticated about targeting backups during ransomware attacks, so ensuring offline or otherwise protected backups of critical data are available is extremely important.

  3. Phishing training: With attacks often being initiated via email, healthcare organizations must undertake regular training to help raise awareness of the pitfalls. With people working 24/7 in distributed environments, training healthcare workers needs to be more flexible to ensure that no one is forgotten. It's important to educate employees on spotting suspicious links and being mindful of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and formatting errors, as these are often phishing red flags. Arming everyone with this knowledge and updating them regularly on the latest cyber scams reduces the likelihood of employees clicking on dubious links and can help ward off attacks.

  4. Strengthen employee passwords: Trojan malware often attempts to propagate through an environment using lists of common or compromised passwords. Emotet, one of the suspected Trojans involved in the UHS attack, does this. Hospitals must end the practice of sharing credentials and integrate a tool to continuously search for exposed, common credentials. If employee or admin credentials are compromised or using common passwords or derivatives of common passwords, it's easier for nefarious actors to initially access and propagate through corporate infrastructure.

  5. Make multifactor authentication mandatory: Sensitive systems and data should require more than one login layer for security. Organizations must add additional authentication mechanisms to deter hackers rather than hoping than one will suffice.

  6. Only permit remote access via a virtual private network: Healthcare organizations have many workers that aren’t on the front lines and are working remotely for the foreseeable future. Hospitals must mandate that employees use a VPN to access work-related systems or data from home to keep this information protected.

The days of healthcare organizations relying solely on endpoint security software to stop attacks are over. Cybercriminals are continually looking for ways to exploit weaknesses in the network. Due to the possibly fatal implications, the healthcare industry can't take a lax approach to the resiliency of its systems. Hospitals must embrace a layered approach to security to reduce the risks from the growing tsunami of cybercrime.

Mike Wilson has spent 20 years in software development, with 12 years specifically in the information security space, at companies like Webroot and LogicNow. At Webroot, Mike led the development of Spy Sweeper, Webroot's industry-leading anti-spyware product, and later the ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Strategist
11/5/2020 | 12:05:53 PM
Don't forget Privileged Access controls
All of the recommendations here are sound.  However, it's critical that organizations have a good Privileged Access Management (PAM) program in place.  Passwords for administrative access should be controlled in a managed password vault, where they are regularly rotated (after use, per schedule).  Session management tools help as well in abstracting the password from the user.  For example, when connecting via a session manager to a Linux server as root, the password is used by the session manager to connect to the target, but the user never sees it and it never winds up on the user workstation in memory or where a kestroke logger can capture it.  Additional tools used to more granularly control administrative access on workstations and servers are helpful as well.  Passwordless authentication at the user end point is also becoming more available, further protecting the enpoint vulnerability (the human) from exploitation.  If no password is used or known by the user, they can't give it to a phisher.  Something like 80% of intrusions are a result of password harvesting at the user workstation, which starts with a phishing event.  Once the attacker has access to the user's credentials, the journey to gain access and move  laterally until privileges are obtained is just a matter of time.

There are multiple vendor choices in the PAM space, so there are choices (features, price, company reputation, etc.).  But if an organization isn't managing privilege well, they are whistling past the graveyard.
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