As cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS) continue to gain popularity and become more prevalent in modern enterprise, hackers have begun to find new ways to exploit these platforms for their malicious activities. This poses a growing threat to healthcare technology, and everyone in the sector should understand the landscape.
To put it bluntly, the transformative IT capabilities delivered by the cloud to healthcare organizations can also be wielded by cybercriminals against healthcare organizations to disastrous effect.
Cloud cybersecurity threats
Cybercriminals are drawn to the cloud for the same reasons as legitimate users — it supplies incredible computational power on demand. Cloud providers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure, have emerged as popular platforms for business modernization due to their high levels of flexibility and scalability. Those same benefits make cloud environments increasingly popular amongst hackers.
For example, one of the key advantages of using cloud services for launching attacks is the ease of spinning up new virtual machines (VMs) or containers. Hackers can quickly create new instances on these platforms and use them to host or launch attacks. After an attack is complete, the VM or container can be easily discarded making it difficult for security teams to track down the source. Hackers can thus launch attacks quickly and at scale, then veritably disappear. They can also use stolen credentials, stolen credit cards, or anonymous payment methods to sign up for these services, further frustrating initial detection and challenging law enforcement agencies in tracing attack origins and perpetrators.
One of the most common types of cyberattacks launched from the cloud is the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS). These attacks basically involve overwhelming a target server with traffic from multiple sources, effectively making the server inaccessible and crippling function. Hackers can use the elastic nature of cloud hosting services to automate, control, and/or launch these attacks from multitudes of VMs simultaneously, making it even harder for the target server to defend itself.
Cybercriminals also use cloud services to host phishing websites or distribute malware. They can use the same techniques to launch these attacks as they would on traditional data center hosting services, but with the added benefit of the relative anonymity and flexibility offered by cloud services. And, as noted recently in Axios, “Malicious hackers who can navigate a cloud environment can use native tools inside the environment to more stealthily search and determine what data is available.” That makes these threats potentially much more powerful and insidious — particularly for healthcare organizations entrusted with data on the most intimate details of real people’s lives.
Healthcare IT impact
The use of cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS) in healthcare technology has significantly improved capability in everything from patient care to medical research, but it has also increased the risk of new avenues for cyberattacks. While the integration of cloud technology enables more accessible and efficient healthcare services, the sensitive and confidential nature of health data continues to be an attractive target for cybercriminals.
Essentially, anyone managing healthcare IT strategy should assume attack is imminent.
The sector is highly targeted due to the enormous value of health data containing personally identifiable information (PII) — such as name, address, social security number, and medical history — which can be used for identity theft, insurance fraud, extortion, and other malicious purposes. Additionally, healthcare technology systems often store financial data, such as payment and insurance information, which can also be criminally exploited.
In healthcare, the consequences of a cyberattack can be catastrophic. An attack can result in the theft of sensitive health information, disruption of healthcare services, breach of patient confidentiality, even increased patient mortality rates. These impacts carry hefty financial implications: Last year, IBM Security issued research reporting that average healthcare data breach costs had reached a record high of $10.1 million.
Cloud cybersecurity for healthcare IT
The responsibility for cybersecurity in the cloud is shared, which means healthcare organizations aren’t “on their own” in combating cyberthreats when it comes to cloud computing. The U.S. News & World Report recently asserted that “in an environment where cyber threats can change by the minute, cloud security is far superior to conventional cybersecurity methods, where companies are responsible for ensuring protections are up-to-date and effective.”
But as noted in the Washington Post, “cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud have their own security features, but they typically manage security only for the underlying infrastructure. Customers are responsible for securing the applications and databases that they put on top of that infrastructure.”
Which means healthcare organizations still need to pull their own cybersecurity weight and prioritize persistent evolution in IT and data security.
Cloud cybersecurity strategy for any healthcare organization must focus on vigilantly implementing and maintaining its own robust cybersecurity measures and employing solutions (whether in-house or via managed services) to mitigate the threat posed by cyberattacks, including:
- Conducting regular risk assessments across all IT infrastructure (on premises, public/private cloud, hybrid)
- Maintaining secure frameworks, leveraging automated controls and continuous monitoring
- Ensuring staff members are adequately trained in cybersecurity best practices
Additionally, organizations must be prepared to respond quickly and effectively to any potential breach or attack.
And those are just table stakes.
Technology is evolving and advancing rapidly — and this is mostly a wonderful thing that has allowed healthcare to achieve new levels of capability. But cyberthreats are also evolving, and cloud power amplifies associated risk and potential impact on the sector. These threats will likely continue to increase.
The truth is that healthcare organizations have, by and large, acknowledged cloud utilization as pivotal in IT modernization strategy. But cyber-awareness in security positioning concordant with this new shift is critical — and will emerge as a significant differentiator. Increasingly cloud-powered IT presents an exciting — but dangerous — future for healthcare. Organizations that grasp what they’re up against and buttress their operating model with proactive cybersecurity intelligence and management gain significant strategic advantage over those who fail to keep pace.