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National Science Foundation-Funded Project Addresses Mobile Health Security Issues

December 21, 2015
by Heather Landi
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A National Science Foundation-funded project is using a $10 million, five-year grant to address security issues related to mobile health, including medical apps and wearables, and to strengthen healthcare IT security.

The  Trustworthy Health and Wellness ( project is funded by a grant from the NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) program and includes experts in computer science, business, behavioral health, health policy and healthcare information technology from Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University.

David Kotz, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College who is leading the THaW project research team, said in a statement that the project aims to protect patients and preserve the confidentiality of medical data as records move from paper to electronic form.

"Mobile medical applications offer tremendous opportunities to improve quality and access to care, reduce costs and improve individual wellness and public health," Kotz said. "However, these new technologies, whether in the form of software for smartphones or specialized devices to be worn, carried or applied as needed, may also pose risks if they are not designed or configured with security and privacy in mind.”

The researchers are examining mobile and cloud technology for health and wellness applications. That portfolio includes authentication and privacy tools to protect health records, methods to secure small-scale clinical networks and efforts to reduce malicious activity in hospitals. According to the NSF release, the research team is also training the next generation of computer scientists by involving undergraduate and high school students in research and by developing an exchange program for its postdoctoral fellows and research students.

"In complex environments having to do with health, wellness and medicine, there are a lot of moving parts involving devices, software, wireless and wired communications, and other dimensions, which are rich in challenges for security, privacy and safety," NSF program officer Sol Greenspan said. This project, he says, "brings together expertise and resources to work on these challenges."

The research team already has conducted a number of studies to determine the security of mobile health apps for exchanging sensitive medical data. Researchers found a variety of vulnerabilities that a malicious party could exploit to gain access to sensitive data, and they found that many apps send sensitive information over the Internet in ways that are fundamentally insecure.

“Of the 22 randomly selected top mHealth apps they studied that send sensitive information over the Internet, they found 81 percent used third-party storage and hosting services, such as Amazon's cloud services, and 63 percent sent the data in an unencrypted form, leaving them vulnerable to theft,” the NSF said in a release about the THaW project.

"These issues need attention and are not easily fixable because they require extra effort and security expertise from developers and computational capabilities from platforms," the researchers concluded. "Steps should be made to encourage mHealth app vendors to assure encrypted network links for communications and the use of third-party storage only when adequate security and privacy guarantees are obtained."

The researchers found critical vulnerabilities in healthcare environments, such as hospitals, where workstations used by clinicians can be susceptible to unwarranted access. The THaW researchers are working on authentication methods to provide better security to workstations.

According to the NSF, the project researchers are now developing a usable authentication method that would allow users to log into their terminals with simple actions, such as wiggling a mouse or tapping a key a few times. And researchers also are exploring techniques for usable authentication and automatic de-authentication for smartphones.

"THaW research is identifying gaps in security and providing practical security solutions. We are developing novel methods for security and privacy, so we can help usher in an era of effective and secure mHealth solutions,” Kotz said.


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