Medicine's mobile mania raises the threat level, DHS warns

Health care facilities are increasingly going wireless, employing smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices to diagnose and treat patients and make medical records easy to get to. It’s a trend that’s not going to slow down, either.

In fact, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected May 17 to call for freeing up wireless spectrum to boost another wireless tool, “mobile body area networks,” which allow doctors to remotely monitor patients through the use of sensors and wireless transmissions.

But all that mobile connectivity, along with an array of network-connected devices, comes with risks, particularly since the medical industry isn’t known to be strong on security, as a recent report from the Homeland Security Department points out.

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The report, “Attack Surface: Healthcare and Public Health Sector,” from DHS’ National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center notes that mobile and network-attached devices are in many ways optimal tools for health care, but that they also introduce a host or potential threats.

These include the introduction of spyware and other malware, the theft of patient information, the loss of test results or treatment records, and possibly even worse. The report notes that at the Black Hat Conference in August 2011, a security researcher showed how an implanted insulin pump could be remotely shut off or altered without the user’s knowledge.

In another instance, the report cited a Conficker working group report that found 300 medical devices from one manufacturer infected with the Conficker worm. The devices connected to local-area networks with older computers running unpatched versions of Windows NT and 2000, which allowed Conficker in when unconnected to the Internet.

Along with specific incidents such as those, the report lays out the same threats any smart phone, tablet or USB device faces, ranging from physical loss of the device to loss of sensitive information via spear-phishing attacks.

How does a health care organization protect itself?

One step is defense-in-depth the report states, citing the Veterans Affairs Department as an example.

After a string of more than 180 cyberattacks against its medical devices, VA used Virtual Local Area Networking to create a separate network, isolated from its main network, for the devices, the report states. The VLAN lets in only authorized users, which keeps the more than 50,000 medical devices used by the agency accessible while separate.

The report also recommends an appropriate firewall configuration for medical devices, along with a list of best practices:

  • Purchase only devices with well-documented and fine-grained security features, and devices which can be configured safely on the organization’s networks.
  • Require vendor support for ongoing firmware, patch, and antivirus updates.
  • Operate well-maintained external-facing firewalls, network monitoring techniques, intrusion detection techniques and internal network segmentation, containing the medical devices, to the extent practical.
  • Configure access control lists on these network segments so only positively authorized accounts can access them.
  • Establish strict policies for connecting any networked devices, particularly wireless devices, to health information networks. This would cover laptops, tablets, USB devices, personal digital assistants and smart phones, and would not allow unsecured and/or unrecognized devices to access networked resources.
  • Establish policies to maintain, review and audit network configurations as routine activities when the Medical IT network is changed.
  • Use the principle of least privilege to decide which accounts need access to specific medical device segments, rather than providing access to the whole network.
  • Implement safe and effective, but legal, patch and software upgrade policies for medical IT networks that contain regulated medical devices.
  • Secure communications channels, particularly wireless ones, through the use of encryption and authentication at both ends of a communication channel.
  • Establish and enforce password policies to protect patient information.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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