Friday, December 20, 2013

Physical Security Dimension to Cybersecurity

A friend who is interested in cybersecurity drew my attention to the following item:

December 16, 2013

Attacking Online Poker Players

This story is about how at least two professional online poker players had their hotel rooms broken into and their computers infected with malware.
I agree with the conclusion:
So, what's the moral of the story? If you have a laptop that is used to move large amounts of money, take good care of it. Lock the keyboard when you step away. Put it in a safe when you're not around it, and encrypt the disk to prevent off-line access. Don't surf the web with it (use another laptop/device for that, they're relatively cheap). This advice is true whether you're a poker pro using a laptop for gaming or a business controller in a large company using the computer for wiring a large amount of funds.
The friend asked the following question: don't these same issues arise with medical records, eg the lab results I so often handle? Specifically, isn't physical security of personal devices a real issue?

The short answer is yes: God, yes! Yes. Yes.

The long answer is that I see two common issues:

Benign Neglect

In this scenario, doctors and other professionals forget that their spouses and kids and kid's friends may end up borrowing computers, laptops, smart phones or tablets which are also used by clinicians to review sensitive medical information.

We all know that traces left by legitimate access of this information can often be found, either by accident by intent, if you let other people fiddle with your device. We all know that we should take basic precautions:
  • Clean your browser cache.
  • Use passcodes and automatic inactivity locking and make the timeout period short.
  • Don't lend your devices if you can avoid and never lose physical control of them.
  • Be aware of how your data is backed up
But we don't all follow these guidelines and we don't follow them all the time. And we should.

Every time I create a system which offers a confidential medical report as a PDF, I cringe. I warn the users that they are responsible for the PDF once it hits their browser. I do the best I can to expire and obscure the PDFs. But I know that the average clinical user neither knows nor cares about ghost images of private health information (PHI) floating around on his or her devices.

Targeted Attacks

Alas, the following is true: major medical centers have celebrities as patients; celebrity PHI is very valuable; human beings take bribes. But that is a problem for HR. What about users who are targeted, especially in this day and age of personal devices at work? I know of such attacks in other domains, such as finance, but I do not know of any against my clinical users. But does that mean that it hasn't happened? Or that it won't?

I do my best to make sure that my smart phone never sees PHI and that my laptop is physically secure and regularly checked for malware. But that won't help my users. So what is our professional obligation here? How do we foster a greater awareness of the risks so that appropriate action can be taken?

There is no point in trying to scare clinicians into not using their shiny, powerful, useful toys. Instead, we need to figure out how to help them use those toys more safely.

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