The next time you become a hacker’s victim, you just might be lying on a hospital bed. Computers and medical devices in hospitals and doctors’ offices are some of the latest targets for viruses, computer malware, and criminals intent on stealing sensitive patient information.
At an October meeting of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce), an expert advisory panel discussed the increasing problem of hospital medical equipment being overrun by malevolent software. The malware, unwittingly picked up through internet connections, attempts to relay spam messages or perform repetitive tasks, slowing a computer’s processing abilities. In one case malware infected fetal monitor systems used for high-risk pregnancies. The malware was capable of bogging the monitors to the point they quit recording data from the baby.
Radiology workstations, nuclear medical systems, and MRI image storage systems are also at risk from malware, according to an MIT Technology Review report of the panel discussion. Although such attacks have not caused any reported injuries, they pose the risk of erasing or altering data in a way that could endanger a patient.
An obstacle to fixing the problem is that many medical workstations run on older versions of Windows that can’t be upgraded or patched due to manufacturer worries about regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration. So instead of installing anti-virus software, administrators at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, for example, have to take computers offline periodically to clean off malware or viruses. Frustrating, to say the least.
Another vulnerability: As hospitals and doctors’ offices switch to electronic medical records, hackers increasingly try to steal patient information. Although putting records online makes it easier for doctors to access a patient’s medical history, it makes the process easier for criminals, too. Since 2009 in the United States, hackers have accessed more than three dozen medical records systems that each contained data for 500 or more patients.
In June, one or more hackers broke into a server for The Surgeons of Lake County in Libertyville, Ill., accessing medical information, Social Security numbers, home addresses, and credit card numbers from 7,076 patients. The hackers then encrypted the data and demanded the doctors pay a ransom to unlock it. (They refused.) As recompense, the group offered its patients a bonus: free credit monitoring.
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