US govt guide aims to bolster security of mobile devices used in health care

The guide looked at what security risks pose the greatest danger to keeping patient data private

Health care providers are increasingly using smartphones and tablets for tasks such as accessing and transferring medical records, and submitting prescriptions, but these devices may not be secure enough to protect sensitive medical information from hackers.

That's the conclusion of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, whose cybersecurity center released a draft guide Thursday to help health IT professionals shore up the mobile devices.

"Mobile devices are being used by many providers for health care delivery before they have implemented safeguards for privacy and security," the agency said.

The guide provided thorough explanations on how to implement security procedures across a health care organization's entire IT system. For example, there are sections that describe how to connect Apple and Android mobile devices to a commercial mobile device management cloud platform. Step-by-step directions are provided on setting up a Linux-based firewall as well as on creating mobile device certificates, among other security technologies. The guide doesn't endorse a specific product and mentions open-source and proprietary technologies. The center used products that are readily available and can easily be integrated with an organization's existing IT infrastructure.

Another section of the guide looked at what security risks posed the greatest threat to keeping patient data confidential. Hackers gaining access to an IT system by exploiting weak passwords ranked as one of the top issues, followed by network sniffing and, perhaps unsurprisingly, stolen mobile devices.

The cybersecurity center also subjected a mock IT system to various security attacks and offered advice on how a health care organization could react to them. In one scenario, a mobile device that could access an EHR (electronics health records) system was lost. To mitigate the threat, the device was blocked from tapping into the hospital network and its data erased via a remote wipe.

Other scenarios showed how implementing access control for different systems could prevent hackers from getting to patient information even after they infiltrated a hospital network. In one example, a phishing attack was used to obtain system passwords and remotely log in to a desktop. In the second case, an unauthorized person, like a hacker or a rogue employee, obtained the password to an EHR system.

In both incidents, the credentials allowed intruders to see a network diagram. However, accessing the systems where sensitive data was stored wasn't possible since that action required administrator passwords and the attackers lacked those credentials.

Encryption was cited as a way to protect data even if an attacker gains physical access to a data center and taps into the network traffic.

The guide pointed out that implementing security must be balanced with making sure health care workers can easily use the technology to perform their duties. In emergency situations, work-around access controls maybe introduced so staff have immediate access to data.

The guide is open to public comments until Sept. 25.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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