Patience Zero: Millions of Insecure Medical Images Frustrate Personal Data Protection

September 18, 2019 @ 2:25 PM
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2 min read

Millions of medical images and other protected health information (PHI) were found to be insecure and easily accessible, putting patients in the U.S. and around the world at risk.

A recent investigation by ProPublica found the MRI, CT and X-Ray scans of at least 5 million patients in the U.S. stored on insecure servers. In many cases, servers lacked basic password protection; interested parties could easily access medical images and personal healthcare data.

While organizations are making cybersecurity corrections to mitigate the impact, patience for healthcare breaches is running thin as PHI protection becomes mission-critical — but is often overlooked by medical service providers.

Healthcare Security Is Lagging Behind Medical Technology

As noted by Gizmodo, while the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) lays out some guidelines for secure data storage and transfer, it’s less clear about responsibility. And with electronic health record (EHR) programs outpacing healthcare security initiatives, the results aren’t surprising: Medical imaging and device developers assume health providers will take charge of security, and at the same time, smaller providers assume developers will include necessary controls.

As a result, researchers found 187 insecure servers in the U.S. alone. While healthcare organizations are no strangers to data breach efforts by determined hackers, Jackie Singh of Spyglass Security makes these storage shortcomings clear in ProPublica’s report: “It’s not even hacking. It’s walking into an open door.”

The Cybersecurity Prescription

Since blame won’t solve the issue, healthcare organizations are better served by identifying and implementing key strategies to improve medical image protection and reduce patient risk. While individual needs vary, there’s a solid four-step plan to help boost basic cybersecurity:

1. Implement Identity and Access Management (IAM) Controls

Identity and access management controls solve the first problem — missing passwords — but these tools also ensure users have the right permissions for access and use strong passwords for authentication.

2. Establish a Patch Management Schedule

Security isn’t static. Healthcare organizations must establish patch management schedules to ensure servers are protected against newly discovered and emerging threat vectors.

3. Conduct Regular Vulnerability Scans

Once basic password security and patch management strategies are implemented, regular vulnerability scans — once every 4–6 months, at minimum — are necessary to identify potential weak spots and prevent public access to medical images.

4. Plan for Pen-Testing

Given its highly regulated nature, it’s no surprise the “2019 Cost of a Data Breach Report ” found that healthcare tops the list of most expensive data breaches at $6.45 million. Security professionals advise health organizations to plan for penetration testing and red team projects to mitigate the risk of compromise.

Exposed medical records highlight the ongoing challenge of healthcare cybersecurity. Bolstering defenses — rather than placing blame — can help boost PHI protection.

Douglas Bonderud
Freelance Writer

A freelance writer for three years, Doug Bonderud is a Western Canadian with expertise in the fields of technology and innovation. In addition to working for...
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