Identity thieves use many tactics to gather sensitive personal information. Some check your mailbox. Others dumpster-dive. But now a more sophisticated identity thief might be found slowly cruising medical park parking lots with a laptop.
Off work and out of school, I spent the week between Christmas and New Years, December 2006, taking care of a friend at Sibley Hospital. During the long hours of sitting in the hospital and doctors’ offices, I tried to keep myself productive with my laptop, which proved surprisingly difficult without internet access. I scanned the 6th floor of the Hospital, and found 13 wireless networks, all of which were private and inaccessible. That was understandable, but bad news for my productivity.
Many businesses have begun to recognize the increasing dependence their customers have on internet connectivity. Consequently they, along with local governments and even hospitals and doctors offices now offer “Hot spots,” or areas of free internet access to patrons. Complimentary internet access has even become an expectation in many places.
Down in the cafeteria, I began to wonder if all medical facilities were as careful as Sibley Hospital about securing their wireless networks. After all, any time you mix open wireless networks with medical information, you run the risk of exposing confidential information protected by HIPAA, and privacy acts.
So, I decided to perform a survey of 76 casually selected wireless networks at hospitals and medical parks in Maryland and DC. At the large hospitals I checked, public and private networks were carefully controlled. However, networks in smaller medical parks, whose tenants are usually independent practitioners, showed far more security defects.
This trend is perhaps predictable, because hospitals maintain a staff of IT professionals, and have established IT procedures. In contrast, independent practitioners have small staffs and often outsource IT functions to people of varying skill. When they outsource it to a non-professional, it can have a devastating effect on patient privacy.
Take Dr. Abulhasan Ansari’s office for example. He treats adults and young adults in his Clinton, Maryland office. While he was away on vacation in December 2006, a member of the office staff contracted with an outside IT “professional” to create a wireless network. The network required no password, was not encrypted, and maintained all of the factory default settings. The network was available to any member of the public with a laptop. Though it is unclear whether it was intended to provide complimentary internet access to waiting patrons, it is clear that it was not intended to allow patrons to access confidential patient information. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Sitting in my car, I opened my laptop. Once my laptop associated with Dr. Ansari’s network (named “linksys”), Windows XP automatically scanned it, and populated “My Network Places” with shared folders. Unfortunately in Dr. Ansari’s case, these folders contained Access databases with confidential patient information, including names, SSNs, birth dates, and medical histories for his patients. All of this information was available to anyone within 100 feet of the office with a laptop. This meant that an identity thief could slowly cruise through the medical park parking lot, grab the Access databases with the patient data, and leave completely undetected, without stepping foot in the office. Incidentally, the wireless router was also essentially open, which means that a thief could have hidden his tracks by erasing the router log.
After making this discovery, I entered the office and told the manager my findings. At first, she insisted that the records were not theirs. I displayed the access files on my screen and she confirmed that they were in fact, Dr. Ansari’s patients. She insisted however, that since they “just recently” established the wireless network, no unauthorized person could have accessed the information in such a short time. I don’t think she appreciated the irony of her statement, as she was viewing her patient data on my laptop.
I asked them whether they had any plans to notify the affected patients that their medical data had been potentially compromised. Instead of answering the question, she said that they would simply disconnect the wireless router. Once she disconnected the router, the files disappeared from my screen, and she promised to have the “professional” return and secure the network right away.
Exactly one week later, I visited the same medical park, and performed the same scan. Dr. Ansari’s office had fixed their problem, but I was dismayed to find that one of their neighbors in an adjoining building had put up their own insecure wireless network in the intervening week. They were closed at the time.
In all, I surveyed 78 medical wireless networks. 6 allowed access without a password, encryption, or other security bar. Sibley Hospital, where I spent several days over the break, had at least two public wireless networks in the cafeteria. They did not allow access to any internal network. Four others, both in medical parks (not hospitals), allowed direct access to an internal office network, some of which contained confidential patient data in Excel files and physician dictations.
The most startling part of this exercise is that the percentage of insecure networks in my sample was nearly 8%. A single breach by an identity thief can cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, and adversely affect hundreds or even thousands of current and former patients.
Despite clear regulations set forth under the authority of HIPAA, new technology poses challenges to under-trained staff. In addition, as demonstrated by this episode, there is a tendency to eliminate and hide mistakes (ie, turn off the router), rather than properly address the issue, or notify potentially affected individuals.
That policy is understandable, if regrettable, because often business owners don’t feel the need to “unnecessarily worry” their customers by announcing a potentially embarrassing security gaffe, when there is no hard evidence that anyone in particular accessed sensitive data, or an increased likelihood of harm. It also regrettably creates an incentive for business owners to put their heads in the sand, so to speak, by not monitoring networks at all; after all, if you don’t collect data that could demonstrate whether a breach had occurred, you’ll never risk having to notify anyone of a breach.
So, next time you go to the doctor’s office, take your laptop, and be prepared to challenge your doctor’s information security procedures. And keep an eye out for anyone cruising the parking lot with a laptop.