Data Breaches at Arizona Medical Center Makes Case for Zero Trust Security

It's no longer enough to protect the network from just external hackers because there are plenty of insiders who have too much access to data, according to a security expert.

Two recent incidents at a hospital and a radiology lab highlight the importance of securing medical data from both internal and external threats.

Three employees and a contracted nurse at Tucson's University Medical Center were fired for accessing confidential patient records, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Katie Riley, the hospital's spokesperson, said "We are not aware of any confidential patient information being released publicly."

The fired employees had accessed records of some of the victims from the Jan. 8 shooting spree, where 13 were wounded and six killed, according to the Associated Press. Riley did not disclose how many patients were affected by the unauthorized record access of privacy or their identities. Nor would the hospital disclose whether Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, was part of the breach or what kind of information was accessed.

All patients and their family have been notified, according to Riley.

In order to ensure patient privacy, UMC uses "sophisticated technology" to prevent and detect inappropriate access, Riley said.

However, the "fundamental issue" was that in most organizations, "trust is granted to staff, allowing them access to massive amounts of an organization's most sensitive data," Glenn Hazard, Xceedium CEO, told eWEEK in an e-mail. Mobile and cloud computing also "pave the way" for these trusted individuals to transfer and share breached data with others, Hazard said.

Malicious (intentionally or unintentionally) insiders are often in positions of trust and it's not always clear what activities are trusted. The best chance of catching people intent on accessing confidential information is to "enforce zero-trust access control," Hazard said.

In a zero-trust environment, only the exact information the user needs is revealed and nothing else.. Instead of giving layers of access, where some people have higher levels of trust than others and only anomalies are tracked, zero-trust access control means all network traffic is logged and analyzed.

Organizations should protect their data internally much in the same way they protect the data from external threats. Organizations can no longer "extend that level of trust" to insiders when it comes to "powerful" information, such as electronic medical records, said Hazard.

External data threats can also come from many directions, whether it's someone trying to gain access to identity information or a group trying to use system resources. In November, a group of gaming enthusiasts hacked into a server storing sensitive medical information for more than 230,000 patients, said Seacoast Radiology, a practice based in New Hampshire. The hackers were using the server tohost the "Call of Duty: Black Ops" computer game, according to Seacoast Radiology. The patients were notified since the servers contained names, social security numbers, medical diagnosis codes and other details.

The breach was discovered after an administratator noticed "a loss of bandwidth," said Lisa MacKenzie, a spokeswoman for ID Experts, a security firm brought in by Seacoast Radiology to look into the breach. Investigators don't believe the hackers accessed any patient information, but the incident is still under investigation.

The network vulnerability that made the compromise possible has been discovered and fixed and the data breach was reported to New Hampshire's attorney general, as required under state law. It is unclear how long the players had been abusing the server.

These incidents demonstrate that security must be "ubiquitous" throughout the network, not just at the perimeter, according to John Kindervag of Forrester Research.