Health Care Sector Faces Rising Pressure to Bolster Data Security

NEWS ANALYSIS: Some signs point to health care companies being more of a personal information leak risk than the retail sector—and with much more serious consequences.

health care data breaches

After the massive data breaches reported by Target, Neiman Marcus and other chain stores, the retail industry has faced plenty of criticism for cyber-security lapses.

Yet the health care industry shows signs of having just as big a data security problem, one that places at risk personal information considered even more sensitive than credit-card data, according to a number of recent reports.

In studies published in the past four months, data collected from the Internet has shown that health care companies continue to expose their networks and patient data to online thieves. In February, the SANS Institute published a report based on data from threat intelligence firm Norse that found online evidence of breaches at 375 health care-related organizations.

A second report, released by security metrics firm BitSight the week of May 26, found that the health care industry scored lower than the retail sector, on average, in security ratings calculated from externals signs of infections.

Because the sensitivity of patient records, and the problems posed by health care fraud, the health care industry needs to put greater focus on bolstering the security defenses around medical records, Stephen Boyer, CEO of BitSight, told eWEEK.

"We know that retail is certainly being covered now, but our fear is that health care seems to have flown under the radar and there doesn't seem to be the same transparency there," he said.

In 2013, more than 7 million records were put at risk in nearly 200 breaches reported to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a jump of 138 percent, according to security consulting firm Redspin.

With the launch of, the Obama administration's health care portal and the arrival of electronic medical records (EMR), a greater amount of health care data is connected to the Internet. Yet widely varying security protections of the data have led to a large increase in the number of records put at risk.

"Hackers can engage in widespread theft of patient information that includes everything from medical conditions to social security numbers to home addresses, and they can even manipulate medical devices used to administer critical care," Barbara Filkins, a senior SANS analyst and health care specialist, said in a statement.

In total, health care fraud—of which identity theft based on stolen electronic records is a part—cost the United States $80 billion, according to the FBI. Currently, the U.S. spends more than $2.7 trillion on health care annually.

The potential reward from such a huge economic sector is very alluring to criminals, and most health care companies are not prepared to protect themselves, Boyer said.

"Their systems are often times designed for ease of use and security sometimes gets in the way," he said. "Many are failing to do some of those basic protections that you would expect from an information security program."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has begun to crack down on organizations that do not protect their patient data. Earlier in May, HHS fined two health care organizations—New York and Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University—$4.8 million for "failing to secure thousands of patients’ electronic protected health information," the federal agency said in a statement.

In July 2013, managed care company WellPoint agreed to pay $1.7 million for putting more than 600,000 patient records at risk.

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...