Health care IT professionals struggle to keep patient and confidential agency data safe on mobile devices. That’s the word from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which just released a draft guide to help companies manage their mobile portfolios and ensure that sensitive data is kept under control and out of sight.

The guide is open for public comments until Sept. 25 and could be an important step forward as companies look for ways to balance the need for easy access against the requirement for strong, secure data management. But is this mobile malady incurable, or can health care IT professionals send it into remission?

Symptoms of Scale

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend comes with challenges for any company; but why do health care companies seem to be worse off than everyone else? As noted by CIO, part of the problem stems from electronic medical records (EMRs). Both federal regulations to encourage virtual reporting and the ease of use enjoyed by medical professionals when EMR systems are properly implemented are helping to drive widespread adoption of this technology. This provides cybercriminals with not only an attack surface at scale, but also a set of targets filled with highly personal patient information that could be used for a host of nefarious endeavors.

“We’re seeing a lot more medical devices being connected to the network,” says Heather Roszkowski, chief information security officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center, which in turn makes these networks much more complex. Tech Target, meanwhile, noted that increasing use of cloud services also poses a security risk: 82 percent of health care organizations use some type of cloud service, and they employ an average of 928 different services to achieve operational goals.

As with EMRs, this represents a massive attack surface. The problem is made more complicated by the addition of mobile devices that leverage both EMR data sets and cloud resources to access and transfer medical records, creating an entirely new avenue of risk.

IT Professionals Guide Recovery

According to the NIST, one of the biggest problems with mobile devices on health care networks is that they’re “being used by many providers for health care delivery before they have implemented safeguards for privacy and security.” As a result, sensitive data that may have enjoyed adequate protection on a desktop is suddenly placed in harm’s way, leaving IT professionals scrambling to create effective protection policies and ensure all access is tracked and documented. That’s the goal of the new NIST guide: to offer practical advice about how health providers can protect patient data without needlessly handicapping the ability of employees to work remotely.

One suggestion is to connect mobile devices with commercial device management platforms to provide improved IT control. The guide includes step-by-step instructions for setting up a Linux-based firewall. In addition, the draft document provides insight into the most common threat vectors, which include cybercriminals gaining access through weak passwords, network sniffing and the ever-present possibility of employees losing mobile devices. Companies can also take other steps to safeguard their data from prying eyes on mobile networks by limiting the amount of patient information available to users at any given time.

Think of it like a use-based access control: Staff only have access to the data they need when they need it, while all extraneous patient data is excluded. Another option is changing the way patients are identified in local networks. Rather than using an attacker-friendly value such as Social Security or phone numbers, health care agencies could leverage their own coding system to increase patient anonymity even if the network is breached.

Mobile devices pose significant risks for health care IT professionals. NIST is looking to help, and its draft guide offers a host of good advice for companies just at the edges of this mobile malady. There’s still work needed, however, to improve health care’s BYOD prognosis.

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