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Survey: 96% of Health IT Leaders Feel Vulnerable to Data Threats, Yet Focus Remains on Compliance

April 14, 2016
by Heather Landi
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Many healthcare organizations seem to be taking a “business as usual” approach with regard to security spending, as a survey of healthcare IT professionals found that 96 percent feel vulnerable to data threats, yet meeting compliance requirements was a higher spending priority than preventing data breaches.

These findings were released in the 2016 Vormetric Data Threat Report:  Trends in Encryption and Data Security, Healthcare Edition. Data protection vendor Vormetric issued the report, in conjunction with analyst firm 451 Research, as the results of its survey of 1,100 senior IT security executives at large enterprises worldwide, including 100 in U.S. healthcare organizations.

“At a high level, our global survey results showed that in many ways, security professionals are like generals fighting the last war. As an example, spending intentions reflected a tendency to stick with what has worked – or not worked – in the past, such as network and endpoint security,” the report authors wrote.

For example, when surveyed about planned spending increases for IT security defenses over the next 12 months, almost half (49 percent) of senior IT security executives at healthcare organizations cited network security, which ranked network security as the top spending priority. By comparison, preventing data breaches was well behind, cited by 40 percent. And, 78 percent of healthcare IT respondents rated network defenses as either “very” or “extremely” effective at protecting sensitive data, although the healthcare industry’s view of network security was lower than most other U.S. verticals, the report stated.

“Overall security spending intentions suggest a focus on business as usual and highlight a growing disconnect between what we are spending the bulk of our security budgets on and what’s truly needed to prevent data theft. For example, with respect to tools that have been shown to be more effective in protecting sensitive data than simple perimeter defenses, only 72 percent of healthcare respondents viewed data-at-rest defenses as ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ effective, below the U.S. average of 75 percent and ranked second to last across all categories,” the report stated.

“IT security professionals are spending heavily on what has worked for them in the past,” Garrett Bekker, senior analyst, information security at 451 Research and the author of the report said in a statement. “They are continuing to invest in defenses like network and endpoint security offerings that offer little help in protecting data once perimeters have been breached.”

On a more positive note, the report found that 60 percent of healthcare IT executives plan to increase spending to offset threats to data and 46 percent plan to increase spending on data-at-rest defenses this year.

According to the report, 96 percent of healthcare IT professionals feel vulnerable to data threats and 63 percent had experienced a breach at some point in the past, the highest of any vertical and higher than the U.S. average of 57 percent. And, nearly one in five experienced a breach in the past year. Yet, counterintuitively, U.S. healthcare respondents are also the least likely to see past breaches as a reason to secure sensitive data. Only 14 percent of healthcare IT respondents cited a previous data breach as an important reason for securing sensitive data.

In fact, compliance continues to drive healthcare organization’s focus on data security, with 61 percent of healthcare respondents citing compliance as an important reason for securing sensitive data, followed by reputation and brand protection (49 percent), implementing security best practices (46 percent) and avoidance of a data breach (45 percent).

And, 69 percent of U.S. healthcare respondents view meeting compliance requirements as a “very” or “extremely” effective way to protect sensitive data, yet, according to Bekker, slow moving compliance standards consistently fail to stop today’s multi-phase attacks.

“Compliance is only a step towards healthcare IT security. As we learned from data theft incidents at healthcare organizations that were reportedly HIPAA compliant, being compliant doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be breached and have your sensitive data stolen,” Bekker said.

Healthcare IT respondents also identified complexity as the number one barrier to adopting data security more widely, cited by 54 percent of respondents. Complex deployments also typically require significant staffing, and "lack of staff to manage" came in as the second highest barrier at 38 percent, followed by lack of organizational buy-in at 33 percent and lack of budget at 30 percent.

Big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) present new challenges to healthcare data security. According to the report, 38 percent of healthcare organizations are planning to store sensitive data in IoT environments, and respondents cited privacy violations related to IoT data and protection of IoT data as top concerns.

Healthcare providers have many concerns with cloud usage, but are storing sensitive data at breakneck speed, according to the report. Top concerns included privileged user abuse at the cloud provider level (cited by 74 percent), meeting compliance requirements (indicated by 72 percent) and security breaches at the cloud provider level (cited by 69 percent).

With regard to Big Data, the survey results indicated that 51 percent of respondents were planning to store sensitive data within these environments, but few were worried. “In spite of this high level of use with sensitive data, only 15 percent regard big-data implementations as presenting a top three risk for loss of sensitive information,” the report stated.

Even so, 48 percent will use Software as a Service (SaaS) environments, 52 percent Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and 52 percent Platform as a Service (PaaS) resources within the next 12 months, the report stated.

And there are increasing signs that respondents are looking to implement "newer" security tools such as cloud security gateways (39 percent), SIEM (36 percent), and tokenization (35 percent). In summary, Bekker wrote, U.S. healthcare agencies are doing many of the right things—they just need to do more.

The report includes a number of recommendations for healthcare organizations moving forward.

“As firms grow to accept the limitations of traditional security approaches, data security is likely to become a critical component of any comprehensive security strategy. Healthcare organizations of all sizes need to consider things like data discovery and classification, DLP and encryption, particularly as cloud, big-data and IoT create greater volumes of sensitive data distributed across an exponentially larger array of devices," the report stated.

And, the report points out that given the main data security hurdles of complexity, and specifically for U.S. healthcare customers, lack of staff and budgetary constraints, the message for enterprises and data security vendors is clear. “In order to achieve broader adoption of data security products, the latter must be more cost effective, simpler to use and require less manpower to deploy, operate and maintain on an ongoing basis,” the report stated.

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