Electronic health records ripe for theft

Electronic health records ripe for theft

The issue has yet to capture attention on Capitol Hill.

By DAVID PITTMAN | 7/13/14 9:56 PM EDT

America’s medical records systems are flirting with disaster, say the experts who monitor crime in cyberspace. A hack that exposes the medical and financial records of hundreds of thousands of patients is coming, they say — it’s only a matter of when.

As health data become increasingly digital and the use of electronic health records booms, thieves see patient records in a vulnerable health care system as attractive bait, according to experts interviewed by POLITICO. On the black market, a full identity profile contained in a single record can bring as much as $500.

The issue has yet to capture attention on Capitol Hill, which has been slow to act on cybersecurity legislation.

“What I think it’s going to lead to, if it hasn’t already, is an arms race between the criminal element and the people trying to protect health data,” said Robert Wah, president of the American Medical Association and chief medical officer at the health technology firm CSC. “I think the health data stewards are probably a little behind in the race. The criminal elements are incredibly sophisticated.”

The infamous Target breach occurred last year when hackers stole login information through the retailer’s heating and air system. Although experts aren’t sure what a major health care hack would look like, previous data breaches have resulted in identity and financial theft, and health care fraud.

Health care is the Johnny-come-lately to the digital world, trailing banks and retailers with decades of experience in cybersecurity. Most hospitals and doctors have gone from paper to electronic health records in the space of a few years while gobbling up $24 billion in federal incentive money paid out under the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act.

“Frankly, health care organizations are struggling to keep up with this,” said information security expert Ernie Hood, of the The Advisory Board Co.

Significant breaches are already occurring. Over the course of three days, hackers using a Chinese IP address infiltrated the St. Joseph Health System in Bryan, Texas, and exposed the information of 405,000 individuals, gaining names, address, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other information.

It was the third-largest health data breach tracked by the federal government.

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center reported late last year that hackers attacked its computer systems over a course of two months trying to steal credit card, Social Security and other financial information. About 59,000 clients and former clients were left vulnerable.

While a stolen credit card or Social Security number fetches $1 or less on the black market, a person’s medical information can yield hundreds of times more, according to the World Privacy Forum. Thieves want to hack the data to gain access to health insurance, prescription drugs or just a person’s financial information

The Identify Theft Resource Center — which has identified 353 breaches in 2014 across industries it tracks, says almost half occurred in the health sector. Criminal attacks on health data have doubled since 2000, according to the Ponemon Institute, an industry leader in data security.

Health care is the industry sector least prepared for a cyberattack, according to security ratings firm BitSight Technologies. The industry had the highest volume of threats and the slowest response time, leading the FBI in April to issue a warning to health care providers.

The industry “is not as resilient to cyber intrusions compared to the financial and retail sectors, therefore the possibility of increased cyber intrusions is likely,” the FBI stated.

Why health care and why now?

The high value of health information makes it attractive to hackers.

A credit card can be canceled within hours of its theft, but information in a patient’s health record is impossible to undo. The record contains financial records, personal information, medical history, family contacts — enough information to build a full identity.

A patient’s credit card information alone may be easier to hack from an unsuspecting hospital than from a company like Target, Michaels or Neiman Marcus, experts say.

“Criminal elements will go where the money is,” said Wah, who was the first deputy national coordinator in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. “They’re seeking health records not because they’re curious about a celebrity’s blood type or medication lists or health problems. They’re seeking health records because they can do huge financial, fraudulent damage, more so than they can with a credit card number or Social Security number.”

Other health security experts say hospitals’ response to cybersecurity issues has been lackluster, with providers still focused on privacy and confidentiality rather than data terrorists.

Security takes money and expertise to implement and isn’t a glamorous job, since success is measured by something not happening. The health system is still in the process of developing and vetting best practices.

The annual security assessment by the Health Information Management Systems Society showed that about half of surveyed health systems reported spending 3 percent or less of their IT budgets on security. Some 54 percent of the 283 IT security professionals surveyed had tested a data breach response plan, and slightly more than half of hospitals had an IT leader in charge of securing patient data.

Health facilities pay their security staffs less than any other industry, said Stephen Boyer, co-founder of BitSight. “This may be the case of you get what you pay for,” he said.


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