CHS Breach a Sign of Health Care's Security Illness

NEWS ANALYSIS: The health care industry spends less on IT security than other industries, and data shows that breaches are on the rise.

health care data breaches

Community Health Systems announced Aug. 18 that hackers had breached its health care network of 206 facilities and stolen sensitive information on approximately 4.5 million patients.

The compromise and subsequent data loss is part of a general trend in the sector. The health care industry has given short shrift to IT security, spending less on protecting its systems and data than most, if not all other, industries, as measured as a percentage of the overall IT budget. And data from firms that track threat intelligence shows that signs of breaches are rampant in the health care industry.

Over the last 10 months, for example, security firm Websense has seen attacks on health care-related firms increase by 600 percent, according to Carl Leonard, senior manager of security research for the company.

"It should certainly be a wake-up call for the entire industry, if one is needed," he told eWEEK. "The health care industry is a very ripe, and seemingly readily-available, target."

CHS, which offers services in 29 southern and western states, stated in an 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that cyber-criminals operating from China broke into its servers in April and June of this year, taking names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of 4.5 million patients. The breach is the largest to date in the health care industry due to hacking, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Yet, if CHS is similar to its peers in the industry, its defenses were unlikely to stop any committed attacker.

In its May 2014 Industry Report, security-ratings firm BitSight Technologies found that the health care and pharmaceuticals industry had the lowest ratings of four sectors: finance, utilities, retail and health care. BitSight uses a number of different threat-intelligence sources, such as malicious traffic emanating from a corporate network, to assign a security score to each company in a particular industry. Health care, while showing some improvements in its security grade, remained below retail, the next-lowest-scoring industry.

"It doesn't bode well," Stephen Boyer, CEO of BitSight, told eWEEK. "Security is not a high priority inside of these organizations."

Boyer pointed to the lack of some basic protections and the relatively low pay for security professionals in the health-care industry as indicators that health care firms have not invested in their IT security.

In addition, the average health care firm spends about 3 percent to 4 percent of its IT budget on security, according to a February 2014 survey by the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). Estimates for IT security spending among all industries range from 3 percent to 14 percent, according to security firm Tripwire's State of Security report, which places the health care industry near the bottom of the range.

Another data point: Network traffic indicates that health care companies are about twice as infected with the Conficker worm, a worm that started spreading more than five years ago, compared with average companies, according to BitSight.

"We saw a larger percentage of Conficker in health care than anywhere else," Boyer said. "And what that tells us is they don't update their systems very often."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...