7 critical steps to defend the healthcare sector against cyber threats
While knowing full well that human lives may be at stake, criminal gangs have been increasingly targeting the healthcare sector with high-impact attacks like ransomware.
1. Tighten up email security
Healthcare providers should set up numerous layers of defense for a variety of email-borne threats. A good email security solution should be the first layer but will only be effective if it is able to detect multiple malicious signals (malicious IPs, suspicious URLs, hidden malware files, etc.).
Training staff to recognize malicious emails can be useful, but personnel should not bear the brunt of responsibility when it comes to catching signs of attack. Instead, training should focus on the importance of proper policies, such as confirming payments and transfers with a second channel outside of email.
2. Follow best practice for passwords and credentials
Obtaining login credentials is a primary goal in most cyberattacks, and many threat actors now specialize in selling information on to others. Investigations by the Trustwave SpiderLabs team found a large quantity of stolen login credentials and browser sessions enabling access to healthcare facilities advertised on dark web markets.
In addition to following best practices around phishing emails, all employees should be using complex passwords that can’t be easily guessed. When storing passwords, organizations must make sure to use modern and robust password hashing algorithms. Two-factor authentication should also be implemented across the organization as a priority (Note: SMS 2FA should not be considered secure).
3. Improve cyber security awareness
While the responsibility of spotting and stopping cyberattacks should not rest on ordinary healthcare personnel, a well-trained workforce can make a real difference in averting disaster. Attackers will be counting on healthcare staff being too busy and focused on supporting their patients to concentrate on security.
Security training is often limited to a few one-off PowerPoint-driven seminars, but this will do little to increase awareness. Healthcare providers should instead consider more in-depth exercises that replicate serious incidents such as ransomware attacks. This will help decision makers to gain experience in making snap decisions under pressure, better equipping them for when a real crisis looms.
4. Prepare for ransomware attacks
Ransomware is a threat to all sectors, but healthcare is particularly vulnerable to its disruptive effects. A paralyzed IT network will mean more than lost data or productivity – human lives may be on the line if data and equipment are locked down. Callous criminals are counting on healthcare providers caving and paying up to restore systems quickly. Further, attackers increasingly exfiltrate data to pile on more pressure and secure additional profits from dark web buyers.
A strong email security system will stop most malicious emails, but not all – and organizations should be prepared for that. Effective managed detection and response (MDR) capabilities, backed by a skilled team of threat hunters, will help identify and stop ransomware quickly to reduce its impact. A managed security service provider (MSSP) is one of the most affordable ways of acquiring these capabilities on a limited budget.
5. Secure extended IoT networks
Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled equipment has been hugely beneficial in enabling healthcare providers to automate and facilitate remote working. But if not properly monitored and patched, these connected devices can also provide threat actors with an easy attack path.
Hospitals are likely to have hundreds of devices deployed across their facilities, so keeping them all updated and patched can be an extremely resource-heavy task. Many health providers also struggle to accommodate the required downtime to update vital equipment.
Automating device discovery and update processes will make it easier to keep devices secured. Providers should also vet future purchases to ensure they have key security functionality and are accessible for maintenance and updates.
6. Understand supply chain risks
Healthcare providers sit in the center of extremely large and complex supply networks. Suppliers for medical materials, consultants, hardware, and facilities maintenance are just a few examples, alongside a growing number of digital services.
These suppliers often have a large degree of network connectivity or access to data, making them a prime target for threat actors seeking a way into the healthcare provider’s network. Organizations can also become the victim of a second-hand breach if a firm trusted to host or manage their data is attacked.
Supply chain risk can be reduced by vetting the security level of all third-party connections. This can be achieved without invasive network scans through publicly available information such as DNS server configurations and the presence of insecure ports open to the internet (e.g., MS-TERM-SERV, SMB, etc.).
7. Test out your preparations
Security is never a one-and-done affair. Even if the right solutions are in place, the workforce has been well-trained and processes are watertight, it is important to continually test defenses and look for ways to improve them.
Regular vulnerability scans are essential for keeping up with the shifting IT and cyber threat landscape. Application and network penetration tests will take things a step further by leveraging the ingenuity of experienced security personnel to look for a crack that can be found and exploited.
Larger healthcare providers such as hospitals may also consider physical penetration tests to determine if their facility’s IT infrastructure is vulnerable to an intruder on their grounds.
Defending against healthcare threats: Preparation is everything
Hospitals and other frontline healthcare providers are used to dealing with medical emergencies. Personnel have the equipment and processes they need in place, and they have the training to adopt the cool head needed to handle a crisis.
As attackers continue to target the sector, the same level of preparation is increasingly essential for cyber threats.
Criminal gangs are counting on budget cuts and staffing shortages to leave healthcare organizations vulnerable to their attacks. By focusing on these seven steps, providers will be able to present a hardened target that sends these callous opportunists in search of easier prey.