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FBI Warns Healthcare Industry About Anonymous FTP Server Cyberattacks

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has issued a warning to healthcare organizations using File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers. Medical and dental organizations have been advised to ensure FTP servers are configured to require users to be properly authenticated before access to stored data can be gained.

Many FTP servers are configured to allow anonymous access using a common username such as ‘FTP’ or ‘anonymous’. In some cases, a generic password is required, although security researchers have discovered that in many cases, FTP servers can be accessed without a password.

The FBI warning cites research conducted by the University of Michigan in 2015 that revealed more than 1 million FTP servers allowed anonymous access to stored data

The FBI warns that hackers are targeting these anonymous FTP servers to gain access to the protected health information of patients. PHI carries a high value on the black market as it can be used for identity theft and fraud.

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Healthcare organizations could also be blackmailed if PHI is stolen. Last year, the hacker operating under the name TheDarkOverlord conducted a number of attacks on healthcare organizations. The protected health information of patients was stolen and organizations were threatened with the publication of data if a sizable ransom payment was not made. In some cases, patient data were published online when payment was not received.

There are reasons why IT departments require FTP servers to accept anonymous requests; however, if that is the case, those servers should not be used to store any protected health information of patients. If PHI must be stored on the servers, they cannot be configured to run in anonymous mode.

In anonymous mode, any information stored on the server can potentially be accessed by the public. Hacking skills would not be required. Default usernames are freely available on the Internet.

Even if PHI is not stored on the servers, healthcare organizations may still be at risk. Any sensitive data could be accessed and used against the organization, ransomware could be installed or the servers could be used by hackers and other cybercriminals to store illegal content or malicious tools.

In the alert, the FBI said “In general, any misconfigured or unsecured server operating on a business network on which sensitive data is stored or processed exposes the business to data theft and compromise by cyber criminals who can use the data for criminal purposes such as blackmail, identity theft or financial fraud.”

Large healthcare organizations may already have ensured their servers are not configured to allow anonymous access or that all sensitive information has been removed from those servers; however, that may not be the case for smaller healthcare organizations. Smaller medical and dental organizations are more likely to be placing patient data and other sensitive information at risk.

The FBI suggests all healthcare organizations should instruct their IT departments to check the configuration of their FTP servers to ensure they are not running in anonymous mode and to take immediate action to secure those servers and reduce risk if they are.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.