Travel-Related Breaches: Mitigating the RisksBillings Clinic Employee's Email Hacking Incident Highlights Need for Precautions
The hacking of medical clinic employee's email account during travels overseas demonstrates the risks posed to data when workers travel - and the need to mitigate those risks.
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Billings Clinic in Montana - which includes a multispecialty group practice with a 304-bed hospital and a Level II trauma center - says in a breach notification statement it became aware on May 14 of "unusual activity" within one of its employee's email accounts.
The employee was traveling overseas on a medical mission at the time of the hacking incident, according to the statement.
Billing Clinic says it took immediate action to disable access to the email account, launched an investigation to determine what happened and took action to further secure its email system.
"As a result of the forensics investigation, we learned that an unauthorized individual had access to emails and attachments within that one account, some of which included patient information."
The types of information on 8,400 individuals included in the affected email account includes patient name, date of birth, contact information, medical record number, internal financial control number, diagnosis and limited information about medical services received, the clinic reports.
"Each patient had different types of information, included in the emails, and no one email contained all of these types of information," the notification statement says.
As of July 16, the hacking incident was not the Department of Health and Human Services' HIPAA Breach Reporting Tool website - commonly called the "wall of shame" - that lists breaches affecting 500 or more individuals.
That breach tally, however, lists a different hacking/IT incident reported in April by Billings Clinic that impacted 949 individuals.
In a notification statement posted on Billings Clinic's website about the earlier incident, the clinic says that on February 26, it also became aware of unusual activity within its email system, and immediately took action to disable the account.
A Billings Clinic spokesman tells Information Security Media Group that the two breaches were separate incidents, but declined to discuss further details, including the steps the clinic is taking to bolster security in the wake of the breaches.
The spokesman also declined to discuss whether the traveling employee in the latest breach was traveling with a Billings Clinic laptop or other mobile computing device, or whether the employee had been accessing Billings Clinic's email system while using a personally owned computing device or smartphone.
Data breaches occurring during employee travel are a common but often overlooked problem, says Rebecca Herold, president of Simbus, a privacy and cloud security services firm, and CEO of The Privacy Professor consultancy.
"It is very common for data and devices to be hacked while traveling and for those who were hacked to not even realize it."
—Consultant Rebecca Herold
"It is very common for data and devices to be hacked while traveling and for those who were hacked to not even realize it," she says. "People are often unaware of what is going on around them when they are traveling. They are using any charger station they can find, they speak loudly and they use free Wi-Fi," she says.
Cybercriminals routinely scan free Wi-Fi networks and copy unsecured transmissions, including emails, she says.
"Shoulder surfing is also still very common; it's a decades-old tactic that still works effectively today. And the skimmers on charging stations are increasing in use. Don't think that if you are in a frequent flyer lounge that these things do not happen there; they happen in those exclusive lounge areas possibly more than in other places," she warns.
Cybercriminals often target travelers, Herold says, because "it is easy for them to commit their crimes without getting caught because there is usually no digital evidence created."
Mac McMillan, CEO of security consultancy CynergisTek, offers a similar assessment: "Any time you travel overseas you may be at greater risk as local cybercriminals will have access to your mobile devices, the locations where you are staying or the ISPs their networks and your traffic is traversing."
Healthcare entities and other organizations - and their traveling staff members - should review information from the Federal Communications Commission, Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies for tips on securing their computing devices while overseas, McMillan stresses.
"The problem is that most private businesses don't educate their employees on these risks," he says. Government agencies "routinely brief employees on foreign travel risks and are always aware that overseas we are potential targets."
Steps to Take
McMillan advises workers on vacation to "leave the work computer at home. Temporarily suspend access to sensitive apps and work email, and do not permit mail forwarding."
But if remote access is absolutely required, he says, "employ two-factor authentication on both apps and email, and strong encryption on all devices. Use different passwords or pins when you travel. Do not make online purchases or go to your online banking site. Clear your cache regularly. Turn off auto-join on your Wi-Fi. If traveling for more than a few days, reset your settings. Above all keep your devices with you at all times and shielded from view."
Keith Fricke, principle consultant at tw-Security, notes that some companies issue a laptop specifically for overseas travel that is locked down more than normal and has fewer applications on it.
There have been reports of some private airplane flights having "hidden cameras" in them recording information on the screens of laptops passengers used laptops during the flight, he says. "Stories also exist of hidden cameras in hotels of certain foreign countries or people entering hotel rooms when the occupant left the room for meetings or a meal. The intruder looked for ways to obtain unauthorized access to information," he notes.
Herold advises organizations to take a number of precautions to reduce the risk of breaches while individuals are traveling.
"Implement policies for employees to not use public Wi-Fi," she stresses. "Provide secured virtual private network or similar types of solutions for remote access. I carry my own device that I use to establish a private VPN connection. I never use public Wi-Fi, or the Wi-Fi in the hotels or restaurants either."
Organizations should also require that data be encrypted in transit and in storage, she says. "That way, if someone gets access through a network, the data is not accessible. If they get access to the device, the data is not accessible."
Herold also advises employers to "provide information security and privacy reminders and awareness communications of other types prior to employee travel so that they have the need to practice safe mobile computing at top of mind."