Defending hospitals against life-threatening cyberattacks – Mohammad S. Jalali

Mohammad Jalali, MIT Sloan Research Scientist

From The Conversation

Like any large company, a modern hospital has hundreds – even thousands – of workers using countless computers, smartphones and other electronic devices that are vulnerable to security breaches, data thefts and ransomware attacks. But hospitals are unlike other companies in two important ways. They keep medical records, which are among the most sensitive data about people. And many hospital electronics help keep patients alive, monitoring vital signs, administering medications, and even breathing and pumping blood for those in the most dire conditions.

A 2013 data breach at the University of Washington Medicine medical group compromised about 90,000 patients’ records and resulted in a US$750,000 fine from federal regulators. In 2015, the UCLA Health system, which includes a number of hospitals, revealed that attackers accessed a part of its network that handled information for 4.5 million patients. Cyberattacks can interrupt medical devices, close emergency rooms and cancel surgeries. The WannaCry attack, for instance, disrupted a third of the UK’s National Health Service organizations, resulting in canceled appointments and operations. These sorts of problems are a growing threat in the health care industry.

Protecting hospitals’ computer networks is crucial to preserving patient privacy – and even life itself. Yet recent research shows that the health care industry lags behind other industries in securing its data.

I’m a systems scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management, interested in understanding complex socio-technical systems such as cybersecurity in health care. A former student, Jessica Kaiser, and I interviewed hospital officials in charge of cybersecurity and industry experts, to identify how hospitals manage cybersecurity issues. We found that despite widespread concern about lack of funding for cybersecurity, two surprising factors more directly determine whether a hospital is well protected against a cyberattack: the number and varied range of electronic devices in use and how employees’ roles line up with cybersecurity efforts.

A wide range of devices

A major challenge in hospitals’ cybersecurity is the enormous number of devices with access to a facility’s network. As with many businesses, these include mobile phones, tablets, desktop computers and servers. But they also have large numbers of patients and visitors who come with their own devices, too – including networked medical devices to monitor their health and communicate with medical staff. Each of these items is a potential on-ramp for injecting malware into the hospital network.

Hospital officials could use software to ensure only authorized devices can connect. But even then, their systems would remain vulnerable to software updates and new devices. Another key weakness comes from medical equipment offered as free samples by device manufacturers who operate in a competitive market. They’re often not tested for proper security before being connected to the hospital network. One of our interviewees mentioned:

“In hospitals … there’s a whole underground procurement process whereby medical device vendors approach clinicians and give them lots of stuff for free that eventually makes its way on to our floors, and then a year later we get a bill for it.”

When new technologies bypass regular processes for purchase and risk assessment, they aren’t checked for vulnerabilities, so they introduce even more opportunities for attack. Of course, hospital administrators should balance these concerns against the improvements in patient care that new systems can bring. Our research suggests that hospitals need stronger processes and procedures for managing all these devices.

Read the full post at The Conversation

Mohammad Jalali is a member of the research faculty at MIT Sloan School of Management.

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