Security Concerns Threaten Mobile Health App Deployment

Posted on January 26, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Healthcare organizations won’t get much out of deploying mobile apps if consumers won’t use them. And if consumers are afraid that their personal data will be stolen, they’ve got a reason not to use your apps. So the fact that both consumers and HIT execs are having what I’d deem a crisis of confidence over mHealth app security isn’t a good sign for the current crop of mobile health initiatives.

According to a new study by security vendor Arxan, which polled 815 consumers and 268 IT decision-makers, more than half of consumer respondents who use mobile health apps expect their health apps to be hacked in the next six months.

These concerns could have serious implications for healthcare organizations, as 76% of health app users surveyed said they would change providers if they became aware that the provider’s apps weren’t secure. And perhaps even more significantly, 80% of consumer health app users told Arxan that they’d switch to other providers if they found out that the apps that alternate provider offered were better secured. In other words, consumer perceptions of a provider’s health app security aren’t just abstract fears — they’re actually starting to impact patients’ health decision making.

Perhaps you’re telling yourself that your own apps aren’t terribly exposed. But don’t be so sure. When Arxan tested a batch of 71 popular mobile health apps for security vulnerabilities, 86% were shown to have a minimum of two OWASP Mobile Top 10 Risks. The researchers found that vulnerable apps could be tampered with and reverse-engineered, as well as compromised to provide sensitive health information. Easily-done hacks could also force critical health apps to malfunction, Arxan researchers concluded.

The following data also concerned me. Of the apps tested, 19 had been approved by the FDA and 15 by the UK National Health Service. And at least where the FDA is concerned, my assumption would be that FDA-tested apps were more secure than non-approved ones. But Arxan’s research team found that both FDA and National Health Service-blessed apps were among the most vulnerable of all the apps studied.

In truth, I’m not incredibly surprised that health IT leaders have some work to do in securing mobile health apps. After all, mobile health app security is evolving, as the form and function of mHealth apps evolve. In particular, as I’ve noted elsewhere, mobile health apps are becoming more tightly integrated with enterprise infrastructure, which takes the need for thoughtful security precautions to a new level.

But guidelines for mobile health security are emerging. For example, in the summer of last year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released a draft of its mobile health cybersecurity guidance, “Securing Electronic Records on Mobile Devices” — complete with detailed architecture. Also, I’d wager that more mHealth standards should emerge this year too.

In the mean time, it’s worth remembering that patients are paying close attention to health apps security, and that they’re unlikely to give your organization a pass if they’re hacked. While security has always been a high-stakes issue, the stakes have gotten even higher.