The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an array of cybersecurity challenges. With no slowing down of the virus’s spread, hackers and other cyber criminals are continuing to seize opportunities to take advantage of vulnerable networks.

Companies are facing technology risks as more people work remotely, including unmanaged devices and insecure IT access, which is leading to increased phishing scams. For example, as more people work remotely and use telemedicine services, more cybersecurity issues are surfacing, such as incidents of videoconferencing accounts being sold on the dark web. Security firm, Zscaler, claims to have experienced a stunning 30,000% increase since January in detected phishing, malicious websites and malware designed to capitalize on the COVID-19 crisis. Similarly, according to the C5 Alliance, cyber-attacks have increased by 150 percent in the healthcare sector over the past two months, as criminals seek to take advantage of system vulnerabilities during the pandemic.

Also, hospital systems and clinical trial sites are particularly vulnerable to ransomware as their services are more vital now.  As noted by an alert issued by Interpol in early April, cybercriminals are using ransomware to target healthcare organisations already overwhelmed by COVID-19, suggesting an increased likelihood to pay hefty sums of money. This surge in ransomware incidents include an Illinois Public Health District website, a Czech hospital system, and a UK medical testing facility.

Opportunistic cyber criminals can use the current pandemic to steal intellectual property and patient information. Further, medical devices and other connected devices and networks, which make up the internet of medical things (IoMT), can easily be targeted as users frequently shift from secure healthcare networks to unsecured public Wi-Fi networks. Cyber-attack schemes include hacking medical devices either to control them or to be used as a backdoor into a hospital’s IT network. 

To date, there is a 26 percent chance that 14 percent of patient monitoring tools will get attacked, according to research conducted by Atlas VPN. The research also reported that 27 percent of medical devices are still running Windows XP or decommissioned versions of Linux OS, leading these devices to increased vulnerabilities and cyber threats. 

As no standard operating system for medical products exists, most medical devices use easily compromised off-the-shelf software. In addition, if a device’s security software is not automatically updated, it can leave further vulnerabilities. 

During this time, digital health technologies have the opportunity to mitigate challenges and relieve burdens to patients and healthcare systems. Yet, it is important to understand potential cyber threats and how to implement proper measures to ensure the safety of patients and trial data. Learning how to better design and include security in devices and systems at the beginning of development will best protect users, as it is more difficult to add security features after creation. As healthcare systems, device manufacturers and software developers rapidly make changes to thwart cyber criminals, we advise to exercise extreme vigilance, as successful attacks will continue to exacerbate current and future challenges. 

Implementing data security best practices

Adhering to best practices regarding patient data privacy remains important during times of crisis as more sponsors, sites and patients increasingly rely on remote communications. Protecting new and existing sources of patient data starts with making sure data is handled securely and that patient data is protected, and in line with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Users and site administrators of applications and softwares should adhere to best practices for password security, such as ensuring strong passwords and multi-factor authentication. Software and hardware should have the latest security patches, and anti-malware software should be deployed. Networks should be continuously monitored — in addition to the networks where IoMT devices are connected — for suspicious behaviour. Further, data backup plans should be established in separate and secure locations.

Harnessing new technologies, such as blockchain, can improve the privacy of sharing data across large networks of users and can keep track of data transactions through a tamper-proof chain of custody of all medical devices. 

Developing a cybersecurity plan that addresses IoMT

Countering cyber-attacks starts by incorporating safety measures from the beginning of a device’s or app’s development and creating a device cybersecurity strategy. The first step is to develop a risk-based cybersecurity plan that addresses overall vulnerability issues with regard to safety, security, privacy, automation, software and design. 

Second, medical device manufacturers should make provisions to ensure that device design is simple and easy to update, and adheres to regulatory guidelines. Also, manufacturers should plan vulnerability management processes, ensuring that fixes can be rapidly developed and deployed. At the same time, processes and protocols to handle security breaches will need to be defined. 

In addition, medical device developers will need to include specific security features such as:

  • Structured processes for limiting access to devices
  • Proven secure design and communications protocols
  • Secure standard operating procedures
  • Periodic software tests and security updates

Moreover, device assessment automation tools should be employed to aid IT professionals in determining where cybersecurity attacks originate. Advantages to automation software include installation of security patches, cloud-based security solutions and traffic analytics tools. In addition, blockchain, AI and machine learning can be leveraged to identify and respond to cyber-attacks in real time, and used to apply adaptive security controls to medical devices, such as additional authentication. 

Collaborating is key

Finally, seeking the advice of IT and medical device experts is crucial since they can provide information about any known computer operating system legacy vulnerabilities. The integration of IoMT and expanded use of networks has brought new opportunities for cyber criminals. Investing in and integrating cybersecurity measures in devices, apps, software and networks can go a long way to preventing future vulnerabilities. 

To learn more about how ICON experts can help you ensure your clinical trial data and patients remain safe, please contact us

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