What Would a Patient-Centered Security Program Look Like? (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on August 29, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

HIMSS has just released its 2016 Cybersecurity Survey. I’m not writing this article just to say that the industry-wide situation is pretty bad. In fact, it would be worth hiring a truck with a megaphone to tour the city if the situation was good. What I want to do instead is take a critical look at the priorities as defined by HIMSS, and call for a different industry focus.

We should start off by dispelling notions that there’s anything especially bad about security in the health care industry. Breaches there get a lot of attention because they’re relatively new and because the personal sensitivity of the data strikes home with us. But the financial industry, which we all thought understood security, is no better–more than 500 million financial records were stolen during just a 12-month period ending in October 2014. Retailers are frequently breached. And what about one of the government institutions most tasked with maintaining personal data, the Office of Personnel Management?

The HIMSS report certainly appears comprehensive to a traditional security professional. They ask about important things–encryption, multi-factor authentication, intrusion detection, audits–and warn the industry of breaches caused by skimping on such things. But before we spend several billion dollars patching the existing system, let’s step back and ask what our priorities are.

People Come Before Technologies

One hint that HIMSS’s assumptions are skewed comes in the section of the survey that asked its respondents what motivated them to pursue greater security. The top motivation, at 76 percent, was a phishing attack (p. 6). In other words, what they noticed out in the field was not some technical breach but a social engineering attack on their staff. It was hard to interpret the text, but it appeared that the respondents had actually experienced these attacks. If so, it’s a reminder that your own staff is your first line of defense. It doesn’t matter how strong your encryption is if you give away your password.

It’s a long-held tenet of the security field that the most common source of breaches is internal: employees who were malicious themselves, or who mistakenly let intruders in through phishing attacks or other exploits. That’s why (you might notice) I don’t use the term “cybersecurity” in this article, even though it’s part of the title of the HIMSS report.

The security field has standardized ways of training staff to avoid scams. Explain to them the most common vectors of attack. Check that they’re creating strong passwords, where increased computing power is creating an escalating war (and the value of frequent password changes has been challenged). Best yet, use two-factor authentication, which may help you avoid the infuriating burden of passwords. Run mock phishing scams to test your users. Set up regular audits of access to sensitive data–a practice that HIMSS found among only 60% of respondents (p. 3). And give someone the job of actually checking the audit logs.

Why didn’t HIMSS ask about most of these practices? It began the project with a technology focus instead a human focus. We’ll take the reverse approach in the second part of this article.