Chinese Hackers Reportedly Access 4.5 Million Medical Records

Posted on August 18, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

The headline of a tech startup blog I read pretty regularly caught my attention today, “Another day, another Chinese hack: 4.5M medical records reportedly accessed at national hospital operator“. The title seems to say it all. It’s almost like the journalist sees the breach as the standard affair these days. Just to be clear, I don’t think he thinks breaches are standard in healthcare, I think he thinks breaches are standard in all IT. As he says at the end of the article:

Community Health Systems joins a long list of large companies suffering from major cybersecurity breaches. Among them, Target, Sony, Global Payment Systems, eBay, Visa, Adobe, Yahoo, AOL, Zappos, Marriott/Hilton, 7-Eleven, NASDAQ, and others.

Yes, healthcare is not alone in their attempt to battle the powers of evil (and some not so evil, but possibly dangerous) forces that are hacking into systems large and small. We can certainly expect this trend to continue and likely get worse as more and more data is stored electronically.

For those interested in the specific story, Community Health Systems, a national hospital provider based in Nashville reported the HIPAA breach in their latest SEC filings. Pando Daily reported that “Chinese Hackers” used a “highly sophisticated malware” to breach Community Health Systems between April and June. What doesn’t make sense to me is this part of the Pando Daily article:

The outside investigators described the breach as dealing with “non-medical patient identification data,” adding that no financial data was stolen. The data, which includes patient names, addresses, birth dates, telephone numbers, and Social Security numbers, was, however, protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).

I’m not sure what they define as financial data, but social security numbers feel like financial data to me. Maybe they meant hospital financial data, but that’s an odd comment since a stack of social security numbers is likely a lot more valuable than some hospital financial data. The patient data they describe could be an issue for HIPAA though.

As is usually the case in major breaches like this, I can’t imagine a chinese hacker is that interested in “patient data.” In fact, from the list, I’d define the data listed as financial data. I’ve read lots of stories that pin the value of a medical record on the black market as $50 per record. A credit card is worth much less. However, I bet if I were to dig into the black market of data (which I haven’t since that’s not my thing), I bet I’d find a lot of buyers for credit card data tied to other personal data like birth date and addresses. I bet it would be hard to find a buyer for medical data. As in many parts of life, something is only as valuable as what someone else is willing to pay for it. People are willing to pay for financial data. We know that.

We shouldn’t use this idea as a reason why we don’t have to worry about the security and privacy of healthcare data. We should take every precaution available to create a culture of security and privacy in our institutions and in our healthcare IT implementations. However, I’m just as concerned with the local breach of a much smaller handful of patient data as I am the 4.5 million medical record breach to someone in China. They both need to be prevented, but the former is not 4.5 million times worse. Well, unless you’re talking about potential HIPAA penalties.