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The past few weeks have seen a significant rise in successful phishing attacks on healthcare organizations. In a little over four weeks there have been 10 major email hacking incidents reported to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, each of which has resulted in the exposure and potential theft of more than 500 healthcare records. Those ten incidents alone have seen almost 90,000 healthcare records compromised.
Recent Email Hacking and Phishing Attacks on Healthcare Organizations
|HIPAA-Covered Entity||Records Exposed|
|Knoxville Heart Group||15,995|
|USACS Management Group Ltd||15,552|
|Texas Health Physicians Group||3,808|
|Scenic Bluffs Health Center||2,889|
|ATI Holdings LLC||1,776|
|Worldwide Insurance Services||1,692|
|Diagnostic Radiology & Imaging, LLC||800|
|The Oregon Clinic||Undisclosed|
So far this year there have been three data breaches involving the hacking of email accounts that have exposed more than 30,000 records. Agency for Health Care Administration suffered a 30,000-record breach in January, ATI Holdings, LLC experienced a breach in March that resulted in the exposure of 35,136 records, and the largest email hacking incident of the year affected Onco360/CareMed Specialty Pharmacy and impacted 53,173 patients.
Wombat Security’s 2018 State of the Phish Report revealed three quarters of organizations experienced phishing attacks in 2017 and 53% experienced a targeted attack. The Verizon 2017 Data Breach Investigations Report, released in May, revealed 43% of data breaches involved phishing, and a 2017 survey conducted by HIMSS Analytics on behalf of Mimecast revealed 78% of U.S healthcare providers have experienced a successful email-related cyberattack.
How Healthcare Organizations Can Improve Phishing Defenses
Phishing targets the weakest link in an organization: Employees. It therefore stands to reason that one of the best defenses against phishing is improving security awareness of employees and training the workforce how to recognize phishing attempts.
Security awareness training is a requirement under HIPAA (45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(5)(i)). All members of the workforce, including management, must be trained on security threats and the risk they pose to the organization.
“An organization’s training program should be an ongoing, evolving process and flexible enough to educate workforce members on new cybersecurity threats and how to respond to them,” suggested OCR in its July 2017 cybersecurity newsletter.
HIPAA does not specify how frequently security awareness training should be provided, although ongoing programs including a range of training methods should be considered. OCR indicates many healthcare organizations have opted for bi-annual training accompanied by monthly security updates and newsletters, although more frequent training sessions may be appropriate depending on the level of risk faced by an organization.
A combination of classroom-based sessions, CBT training, newsletters, email alerts, posters, team discussions, quizzes, and other training techniques can help an organization develop a security culture and greatly reduce susceptibility to phishing attacks.
The threat landscape is constantly changing. To keep abreast of new threats and scams, healthcare organizations should consider signing up with threat intelligence services. Alerts about new techniques that are being used to distribute malicious software and the latest social engineering ploys and phishing scams can be communicated to employees to raise awareness of new threats.
In addition to training, technological safeguards should be implemented to reduce risk. Advance antivirus solutions and anti-malware defences should be deployed to detect the installation of malicious software, while intrusion detection systems can be used to rapidly identify suspicious network activity.
Email security solutions such as spam filters should be used to limit the number of potentially malicious emails that are delivered to end users’ inboxes. Solutions should analyze inbound email attachments using multiple AV engines, and be configured to quarantine emails containing potentially harmful file types.
Embedded URLs should be checked at the point when a user clicks. Attempts to access known malicious websites should be blocked and an analysis of unknown URLs should be performed before access to a webpage is permitted.
Phishing is highly profitable, attacks are often successful, and it remains one of the easiest ways to gain a foothold in a network and gain access to PHI. As such, phishing will remain one of the biggest threats to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI. It is up to healthcare organizations to make it as difficult as possible for the attacks to succeed.