• Date: February 13, 2008
  • Author: SecureWorks® Counter Threat Unit™ (CTU)

Personal, Identifiable Information, Health Insurance Credentials and Financial Data Targeted by Hackers

SecureWorks, one of the leading Security-as-a-Service providers, has seen an 85% increase in the number of attempted attacks directed toward its healthcare clients by Internet hackers. Attempted attacks have increased from an average of 11,146 per healthcare client per day in the first half of 2007 to an average of 20,630 per healthcare client per day in the last half of 2007 through January 2008.

Factors Contributing to Increase in Healthcare Attacks

Hunter King and Don Jackson, security researchers with SecureWorks® Counter Threat Unit™, attribute the increase in attacks to several factors. These include the increase in client-side attacks (attacks against the employees' pc's), the fact that healthcare organizations have large attack surfaces in which hackers can try and break in, the volume of personal, identifiable information and health insurance credentials being stored by healthcare organizations, and the valuable computing resources available to healthcare entities.

1. Hackers Launch Client-side Attacks Against Healthcare Organizations

Client-side attacks, where the attackers target the employee's PC, make up many of the attempted attacks seen against SecureWorks' healthcare clients. "This is true not only for our healthcare clients, but also for our clients in the financial, retail, technology, and utility sectors," said King. "Client-side attacks have continued to be popular with hackers because compromising an employee's PC is often much easier than hacking directly into an organization's database. Many times it is simpler to compromise an employee pc because an employee's position often requires them to have access to the web, whereas a company's databases and backend servers are usually not open to outside networks. "Taking control of employee computers are also desirable because they have authority to communicate to a company's backend systems, whereas communications coming from an IP address outside the network is often blocked. And once a hacker gets behind an organization's firewall, there are many ways to gain access to the backend infrastructure," continued King. Some of the most popular types of malware being used in client-side attacks are the Rbot, Storm Worm, Prg, and Pinch trojans.

2. Healthcare Organizations Possess Large Attack Surfaces

Often times, healthcare organizations are architected with very open networks so as to conduct necessary business activities such as billing, the transfer of patient records, and communication with different physician networks. These open networks give hackers more openings in which to try and break in making healthcare organizations prime targets.

3. Healthcare Organizations Store Personal, Identifiable Information, Banking information and Health Insurance Credentials

Healthcare organizations store a lot of valuable personal, identifiable information such as SSNs, names, addresses, age, in addition to banking and credit card information. This makes healthcare organizations extremely valuable targets because with this information scammers can develop complete profiles on victims making them ripe for identity theft.

Health Insurance Credentials. According to Don Jackson, who spent eight years working in healthcare IT security prior to coming to SecureWorks, healthcare organizations store other valuable information such as patients' health insurance credentials. Information from patients, who are members of preferred medical network plans, is sought after by certain hackers because these patients have benefits enabling them to visit any doctor in the country without getting approval. The hackers can then turnaround and sell the credentials to criminals specializing in illegal immigration kits. These credentials are highly desirable to illegal immigrants in need of healthcare services. "These credentials information is usually stolen via targeted cyber attacks, which often consist of SQL Injection and File Inclusion attacks, are although they are not as frequent as client-side attacks, I have seen several cases where health insurance credentials were sold to criminals in the counterfeit document racket. A lot of this activity took place in Central and South America," said Jackson.

4. Healthcare Organizations Contain Large Numbers of Computing Resources

Healthcare organizations usually have high-bandwidth networks, networks with lots of PC's connected to it, and operations that run 24x7. These computing resources make healthcare entities a very attractive target to hackers because they not only have lots of PCss that can be harvested for valuable data, but these computers can be turned into spam bots. Additionally, the high bandwidth of their networks and the computing power of their servers make them a prime target giving hackers lots of resources in which to run large phishing campaigns, spam operations, etc.

How Healthcare Organizations Can Protect Themselves

Implementing a solid information security and risk management program is a good step towards protecting one's healthcare organization from hacker threats. HIPAA compliance offers a good baseline. IT governance frameworks such as CobiT and information security management standards such as the ISO/IEC 27000 series provide broader guidance. The ultimate product of these programs is a defense-in-depth system that matches the healthcare organization's business goals, risk profile, and regulatory compliance requirements. Specifically, Intrusion Prevention Services, Security Information Event Management (SIEM) services, information leakage protection, and log analysis would be the primary controls to detecting and preventing the types of attacks described in this threat report.