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Healthcare Faces Poor Cybersecurity Prognosis

Experts say the healthcare industry is underestimating security threats as attackers continue to seek data and monetary gain.

For attackers looking to steal valuable data with minimal effort, the healthcare industry is a prime target. The critical role of medical facilities, combined with poor security practices and lack of resources, make them vulnerable to financially and politically motivated attacks.

"Healthcare is clearly an attractive target and becoming more attractive," says Viktors Engelbrehts, director of threat intelligence at eSentire. The company today released its Industry Threat Report for healthcare, one of several recent reports on the troubling state of security.

"Any attacks on healthcare can lead to loss of life," he continues. "That's something that a significantly higher risk than in any other industries."

Threat actors rarely attack with the intent of causing physical harm, Engelbrehts points out. Most are looking for financial gain. eSentire reports patient records are worth between $0.05 and $2.42 USD each. Attackers can sell them on the Dark Web, use them for tax fraud or blackmail, or for conducting spearphishing campaigns.

Still, some may seek to cause physical harm. Well-known terrorist organizations are significantly improving their cyber capabilities and the idea of attacking healthcare providers to cause harm, while not imminent, "cannot be excluded in the very near future," he says.

The threat to healthcare organizations will grow with each successful breach. But where are the biggest security holes, and how are attackers taking advantage?

Diagnosing risk

Cybersecurity is a tough enough problem for businesses to solve, and decentralized data-sharing and network-integrated medical equipment both broaden the attack surface for the healthcare industry. Most IT funds go toward business functions; only a small fraction is allocated to cybersecurity.

"Healthcare is a unique industry in the sense there are a lot of devices talking to each other all the time," Engelbrehts says. "There is huge data traffic across different computer assets." Medical devices are constantly sharing data, and reliance on them increases access points.

While the FDA requires security compliance in medical products, those rules are more for patient health and don't consider the possibility of someone stealing information stored on these devices, or using them as access points into organizations.

Spence Hutchinson, threat intelligence team leader at eSentire, points out that remote access to medical data also increases risk. In his firm's research, he says, the team noticed a lot of exposure tied back to data sharing and providing access for both patients and external contractors.

"IT resources are often outsourced, and in order to facilitate that, there's a need for remote access into these networks," Hutchinson explains.

How attackers take aim

Opportunistic attacks are common because of the amount of vulnerable devices. "With these, they're generally not targeting you as an organization, they're targeting you because you're vulnerable," says Engelbrehts. These attacks require no effort on the user's part; attackers need only to find exposed devices and run the exploit.

The low security posture of most healthcare organizations may prove a target demographic for which these attacks are successful, the report states. Businesses need to be harder targets.

Engelbrehts points out the danger of ransomware, which has become a bigger part of the security conversation following major attacks this year. The downside of the publicity is it serves as a "negative commercial" for cybercriminals: if they know it's successful, they'll try it.

"Phishing is a big one," he adds. "It also links to our assumption that education on cybersecurity is lacking in the industry overall." These attacks are also opportunistic; malicious emails are spammed to thousands of email addresses, which can be found on the Dark Web.

Research from Mimecast and HIMSS emphasizes the danger of email as an attack vector. Providers say email is the biggest potential area for a breach; 9 of 10 respondents said email was critical their organizations. Of those, 43% report email is mission-critical and downtime cannot be tolerated. Attackers know email is a weak spot and are likely to take advantage.

And a new report from Positive Technologies, which focuses on Web application attacks, points out SQL injection attacks fell this quarter for the healthcare sector compared with previous quarters. However, other types of attacks including OS Commanding and Arbitrary Code Execution have grown. Attackers commonly use local file inclusion vulnerabilities, which let them take over a Web app and alter its content.

Bring it to the board

"Healthcare providers need to start realizing the cybersecurity threat for them is imminent," says Engelbrehts. "It's not something that might happen in time, it's something that's happening now in the healthcare sector."

If cybersecurity is not top-down; if it's not a talking point on the board of directors, it's difficult for security teams to achieve their goals. "Each healthcare provider taking cyber seriously should have a CISO," he adds.

Hutchinson advises adopting a threat intelligence sharing policy, something that has grown in the financial industry but doesn't yet exist for healthcare providers. This "would definitely improve the reaction time for new and emerging threats," he says.

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