An alarming trend is happening all over the nation with hackers breaking into hospital networks and stealing valuable patient data, a trend that is hitting particularly hard in New Jersey. In fact, according to NJ.com, approximately one million patients at New Jersey medical facilities have been compromised thus far and that number is expected to grow. While human theft and misplacement of servers and other equipment account for a portion of that number, the greatest threats to patient privacy occur over the network.

Why Do Hackers Target Hospitals? While attacks on banks and financial institutions have an obvious motivation (that’s where the money is!), attacks on hospitals just seem cruel. Hospitals are places where people go when they are in need of medical attention, served by the medical staff that is trying to save lives. Even in war zones both sides usually stay away from medical targets and mash units. So why target such safe havens of humanity?

The Hacker Marketplace. There exists a black market for which the stealing of credit card and personal information is in great demand. A hacker who gets a hold of an individual’s credit card number earns $1 for that financial record. But a hacker who steals an Electronic Health Record (EHR) earns $50 per record. The reason? Credit card companies and banks can quickly shut down a compromised credit card, while an EHR has a much longer shelf-life. Not only that, it contains much more information than just financial data that spikes its value within the hacker marketplace.

Ransomware on the Rise. Ransomware is the act of hackers infiltrating a hospital’s network, encrypting the data so that it is unusable to the medical staff, and then contacting the hospital with their demands – hundreds or million dollars of in exchange for the decryption key to decrypt the data back to its normal state. This is happening in hospitals all over the nation at alarming rates, and in most cases, hospitals pay the ransom to get their data back (or risk losing many more millions waiting for the crime to be solved) and then contact authorities after the fact.

How Do Hackers Break into Networks? The most common way that hackers break in is to use phishing attempts (fake emails impersonating a real company or individual) and then once inside the network, depositing “malware” which goes to work gathering the sensitive information in stealth mode. Just as prevention habits are important in the health care industry, preventing malware and other attacks is perhaps the most critical step to secure a hospital’s network perimeter.

How Can Hospitals Protect Themselves? There are three ways that hospitals can protect themselves from ransomware and malware attacks.

Encrypt their own data. This is beating ransomware attackers at their own game. Rather than be a sitting duck, hospitals can proactively encrypt their own data, making it useless to attackers on the black market.

Educate employees. Many hackers get in through phishing emails — a legitimate looking email that contains a link that installs the malware. An employee innocently clicks on the link without knowing it is a phishing scam. Instruct all employees to hover over the link with their mouse, to see where it’s really going before clicking on it.

Install security appliances that are able to diligently monitor all network traffic, capture it in real time, perform analysis, and alert security and network professionals when or if a breach is detected.

Patricia Brogdon is public relations manager for NIKSUN, a Nassau Park Boulevard-based network security company.

NIKSUN Inc., 100 Nassau Park Boulevard, Third Floor, Princeton 08540. 609-936-9999. Parag Pruthi, CEO. www.niksun.com.

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