Securing IoT Devices Calls For New Ways Of Doing Business

Posted on June 8, 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.

While new Internet-connected devices can expose healthcare organizations to security threats in much the same way as a desktop PC or laptop, they aren’t always procured, monitored or maintained the same way. This can lead to potentially major ePHI breaches, as one renowned health system recently found out.

According a piece in SearchHealtlhIT, executives at Intermountain Healthcare recently went through something of a panic when connected audiology device went missing. According to Intermountain CISO Karl West, the device had come into the hospital via a different channel than most of the system’s other devices. For that reason, West told the site, his team couldn’t verify what operating system the audiology device had, how it had come into the hospital and what its lifecycle management status was.

Not only did Intermountain lack some key configuration and operating system data on the device, they didn’t know how to prevent the exposure of stored patient information the device had on board. And because the data was persistent over time, the audiology device had information on multiple patients — in fact, every patient that had used the device. When the device was eventually located, was discovered that it held two-and-a-half years worth of stored patient data.

After this incident, West realized that Intermountain needed to improve on how it managed Internet of Things devices. Specifically, the team decided that simply taking inventory of all devices and applications was far from sufficient to protect the security of IoT medical devices.

To prevent such problems from occurring again, West and his team created a data dictionary, designed to let them know where data originates, how it moves and where it resides. The group is also documenting what each IoT device’s transmission capabilities are, West told SearchHealthIT.

A huge vulnerability

Unfortunately, Intermountain isn’t the first and won’t be the last health system to face problems in managing IoT device security. Such devices can be a huge vulnerability, as they are seldom documented and maintained in the same way that traditional network devices are. In fact, this lack of oversight is almost a given when you consider where they come from.

Sure, some connected devices arrive via traditional medical device channels — such as, for example, connected infusion pumps — but a growing number of network-connected devices are coming through consumer channels. For example, though the problem is well understood these days, healthcare organizations continue to grapple with security issues created by staff-owned smart phones and tablets.

The next wave of smart, connected devices may pose even bigger problems. While operating systems running mobile devices are well understood, and can be maintained and secured using enterprise-level processes,  new connected devices are throwing the entire healthcare industry a curveball.  After all, the smart watch a patient brings into your facility doesn’t turn up on your procurement schedule, may use nonstandard software and its operating system and applications may not be patched. And that’s just one example.

Redesigning processes

While there’s no single solution to this rapidly-growing problem, one thing seems to be clear. As the Intermountain example demonstrates, healthcare organizations must redefine their processes for tracking and securing devices in the face of the IoT security threat.

First and foremost, medical device teams and the IT department must come together to create a comprehensive connected device strategy. Both teams need to know what devices are using the network, how and why. And whatever policy is set for managing IoT devices has to embrace everyone. This is no time for a turf war — it’s time to hunker down and manage this serious threat.

Efforts like Intermountain’s may not work for every organization, but the key is to take a step forward. As the number of IoT network nodes grow to a nearly infinite level, healthcare organizations will have to re-think their entire philosophy on how and why networked devices should interact. Otherwise, a catastrophic breach is nearly guaranteed.