Safeguarding Healthcare: The Urgent Need for Post-Quantum Cryptography and Zero Trust Architectures

October 18, 2023

In today’s interconnected world, the healthcare industry faces a growing list of challenges when it comes to protecting sensitive data and ensuring patient privacy. The increasing sophistication and frequency of cyber attacks, combined with potential risks associated with quantum computing, necessitate that healthcare organizations maintain constant vigilance to both internal and external threats. This vigilance is imperative to safeguarding the privacy and confidentiality of patient data. Two technologies that provide significant defense against these cyber threats are Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC) and Zero Trust Architectures (ZTA). 

The arrival of quantum computers will pose a significant threat to the healthcare industry due to their capability to break the current encryption methods that safeguard global data, communications and transactions- potentially exposing sensitive patient information to risk. Even years before quantum computers have this compromising capability, adversaries have begun launching Store Now, Decrypt Later (SNDL) attacks, acquiring potentially sensitive data to store for future decryption and exploitation. As a defense to SNDL, PQC offers encryption methods that are resistant to quantum decryption, which ensures the confidentiality and integrity of healthcare data - now and in the future.

Similarly, ZTA helps protect against insider threats and unauthorized access to sensitive healthcare systems and data. As the name implies, ZTA security models take a “never trust, always verify” approach – even if the person was already granted access to the larger network. Instead, it operates under the assumption that the network has already been breached and responds by continuously verifying both user and device identities before granting access to critical systems and data. The models also enforce strict access controls, granting users and applications the least amount of access needed to complete their tasks effectively. 

The Growing Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities Facing Modern Healthcare Systems

To better understand why these new cybersecurity technologies must be implemented, one must first explore all the ways in which healthcare information is both stored and shared, as well as the vulnerabilities to potential attacks. A failure to protect this data creates the possibility of sensitive information being exposed to risk, potentially resulting in severe legal and financial consequences due to non-compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

  • Telemedicine and Telehealth Interactions: Telemedicine and telehealth have revolutionized patient care by allowing remote consultations and monitoring. These capabilities proved their value during the COVID-19 pandemic, and led to an increase of digital healthcare services. However, this convenience comes at the cost of increased vulnerability to cyberattacks. For example, patient data transmitted during telehealth interactions could be intercepted and used to commit fraud or be made publicly available. Another example would be hackers posing as healthcare professionals who leverage virtual sessions to extract personal or financial information from patients. 
  • Electronic Health Records (EHR) and Clinical Trial Data: Sharing EHR data can help doctors make more informed diagnoses or treatment decisions. Similarly, transmitting clinical trial data to participating physicians can help accelerate analysis and speed up approvals for new therapies. However, these records contain highly sensitive information about patients’ medical histories and/or proprietary medical research and therefore must be protected where it’s stored and whenever transmitted. Unauthorized access to these records could result in exposure of private patient information, potential misdiagnosis, or invalidation of the integrity of clinical trials. 
  • Data Retention Mandates: Under HIPAA, healthcare organizations are required to house patient health information for six years after its “last effective date.” Other organizations have even longer retention mandates - for example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is required to retain patient data for 30 years. These long retention periods pose significant data security challenges over time. Adversaries who are executing SNDL attacks today have the opportunity to uncover valuable insights and information that could be used to commit fraud (or other crimes) five, ten, or fifteen years in the future.
  • Intellectual Property of Drug and Medical Device Pipelines: Pharmaceutical and medical device companies invest heavily in research and development (R&D), with expectations that a successful product will offset prior experiment costs, fund future efforts, and deliver shareholder value. Protecting intellectual property related to drug development and device designs is crucial: Were an adversary to acquire this data, they could potentially beat their competitors to market and secure long-term patent protection. In countries with lax IP laws, they could flood the market with cheaper, inferior knock-offs. The billions of dollars in revenue that should have gone to the creator could be redirected to another entity, preventing the recovery of past R&D losses and stifling future innovation. 
  • Protecting Proprietary Software, APIs and Algorithms: Individual healthcare companies rely heavily on proprietary in-house technologies for drug development, designing medical devices, analyzing data, and more. Protecting the IP of these technologies is essential to maintaining competitiveness and innovation. Were adversaries to acquire these tools, they could use them to advance their R&D efforts, increase their competitiveness, or gain an unfair market advantage. 
  • IoT Medical Devices: The proliferation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in healthcare, such as wearable monitors and connected medical devices, introduces new cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Due to their widespread use, these devices could be easy targets for hackers who might use them to gain access to more sensitive information or systems. There could also be life-threatening consequences if hackers manipulate these devices, either by silencing alerts, sending false data, or directly compromising something essential such as a pacemaker.
  • Healthcare IT Systems: Beyond acquiring sensitive data, adversaries continuously seek to breach healthcare IT systems for notoriety or financial gain. According to a 2023 JAMA Health Forum study, ransomware attacks on healthcare organizations have doubled in the last five years. This summer, a ransomware attack against a large healthcare system disrupted operations in several states, causing the cancellation of surgeries and doctor visits, and forcing workers to revert to paper-based record-keeping methods. 

To safeguard patient data, protect intellectual property, and ensure compliance with regulations, healthcare organizations must prioritize PQC and ZTA. This multi-layered approach provides the best defense against both internal and external threats. Embracing these advanced security measures empowers the healthcare sector to drive innovation and deliver high-quality care, while keeping patient information safe from evolving threats.

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