NordLayer - Network Security

Zero Trust Security in healthcare organizations


By NordLayer
14 Jul 2022
15 min read
two doctors looking at a tablet and discussing zero trust security

The Healthcare industry is very attractive to cyber criminals. Medical information is one of the most sought-after data types, worth a lot of money in black markets. Paired with the lacking network security that most healthcare organizations rely on, it's easy prey even for low-skilled hackers.

Yet it’s only half of the problem as threats could also be coming from the inside. Internal data mismanagement is another cause for concern. Your employees may leak sensitive data outside your organization even if your security works fine.

To protect against both of these risks, there’s no better solution than Zero Trust security. It helps to seal medical systems against unsupervised access and limits total attack surface. Here’s how Zero Trust solution can be applied in the healthcare industry.

The rise of Zero Trust

As enterprise networks expand beyond a single location, there is a need for new solutions to address security concerns. The Zero Trust concept was born as a more robust and comprehensive security alternative. The core idea behind this approach can be phrased as “never trust, always verify”. It discards the traditional idea of network perimeter in which you can pass authentication once and be considered trustworthy for the remainder of the session.

In practice, the Zero Trust concept is implemented by building your network infrastructure following the Zero Trust Architecture model. It enforces the least privileged access for each user and requires authentication at each access step.

Instead of a network location-focused setup, ZTA focuses on identity securing resources across all access points. Essentially, any piece of information can be retrieved with any device, provided that you can prove your identity. It's a much more future-focused approach.

Data breaches in the healthcare industry

Data breaches have been rising across all industries, and healthcare is no exception. According to Critical Insight’s 2021 healthcare data breach report, after the pandemic breaches increased by 84%. This quickly resulted in all-time high healthcare data breaches, as Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reported.

infograph showing that data breaches increased by 84%

The noticeable trend is that most healthcare data breaches were caused by hacking. This is the principal cause for 73% of incidents, while human error was responsible for 20% of data breaches. These numbers could have been lower if Zero Trust implementation was more widespread. It limits unauthorized access opportunities for internal and external connections by design.

Why healthcare organizations should implement Zero Trust architecture

Cybersecurity risks are concerning for most businesses. However, ZTA implementation can severely improve your organization’s resistance to cyber threats.

Universal data protection

Many IT administrators tie the data’s security to the medium where it’s hosted. While it’s not a mistake by default, this can backfire if the access rights are overlooked. ZTA facilitates data protection by linking it to access permissions. That way, with the right credentials, the data can be accessed from anywhere, provided that the user has the right credentials. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that the medium shouldn’t be protected. The idea is that the data should always be inaccessible to everyone regardless of where it’s hosted.

Segments your workloads

The team in ZTA architecture is regarded as a subset of employees in terms of their access rights. Colleagues share workloads and access the same applications with similar permission levels. They should be restricted only to what is required to perform their role. This prevents lateral movement, which hackers exploit when escalating privileges to obtain more confidential data. Each workload has specific ceilings that cannot be exceeded, which helps to manage your traffic load and ensure security in case a data breach occurs.

Identify every network user

Zero Trust requires every user on the network to be identified. While this doesn’t sound too different from a perimeter-based approach, Zero Trust requires identification at each access step. If you’ve already passed authentication and were allowed into your company’s network, this doesn’t mean application access is also allowed. Depending on the ZTA setup, you may be asked to provide separate credentials for the applications or resources you’re accessing. Verification can also have multiple steps to increase security against hackers trying passwords from leaked databases.

Better network visibility

Another upside of stricter authentication procedures is that every device on the network can be easily identified. This provides much better network visibility, making it easier for network administrators to supervise everything remotely.

In addition, it makes it possible to use various network analysis tools to detect suspicious behavior. Different security information management solutions exist and can enhance the business security side of things.

How Zero Trust protects healthcare systems from cyberattacks

Healthcare systems are highly susceptible to perimeter breaches due to a large number of equipment and medical devices connected. A real-life example occurred in 2017 when WannaCry ransomware affected United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) computers. Zero Trust is a handy alternative as it switches from network access-based setup to application-access-based architecture.

Therefore, the network is used only as a gateway to reach specific work-related applications. The users are passed to them only after being authorized and authenticated. Essentially this subverts traditional concepts of external and internal networks. User authentication is the barrier that separates the users that are allowed and those who are denied. It’s a completely different approach that is much more effective at keeping security up to standard.

Steps toward Zero Trust approach for a healthcare organization

Changes to your network architecture can be a headache, so it’s best to have a thorough action plan for its implementation. Here’s how you could approach Zero Trust implementation in your company.

Step 1: implement a software-defined perimeter

Software-defined perimeter (SDP) is a cybersecurity approach that hides all internet-connected infrastructure from the public. Without authorization, all connected devices remain invisible to hackers scanning for open ports that could serve as a gateway into the company. Limited visibility on public networks serves as a safety mechanism.

Step 2: adopt mesh networks

If it can be set up, your connections shouldn’t always be routed through the central gateway. This only accumulates traffic backhauls, which can quickly add up, causing network congestion. A good solution in such a case is a mesh VPN that uses peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to form connections through peers. That way, you’re always connecting through other devices instead of channeling everything through a single tunnel. They’re cheaper and easier to scale.

Step 3: install the network access control platform

Network access control (NAC) assesses each device before allowing it on the network. This tool enhances your cybersecurity flow by continuously monitoring incoming connections and handling authentication.

Various security policies can be set up depending on the accessed resource sensitivity, used device, and other parameters. This allows greater flexibility, increasing strictness in certain contexts while being more laid back in others.

Challenges of implementing Zero Trust for Healthcare providers

In most business settings introducing any IT, changes can be a difficult subject. Here are what principal challenges you’ll hear when talking about introducing Zero Trust Architecture.

Lack of connected device data and network insight 

Healthcare is an industry with one of the highest numbers of connected devices. Most clinical procedures nowadays rely on several medical and IoT devices that instantly sync data to medical databases and your physician’s hardware. It’s hard to keep up with various security patches and install them on time.

As an IT administrator, you must know precisely what is on your network. Otherwise, you’re turning a blind eye to the majority of threats that could be lurking. Without proper knowledge of what exists on your network, it’s much harder to protect it.

Introduce changes without breaking the existing system

Usually, for healthcare organizations, safety comes second. Much more important is that all devices should work. Patches or transitions into a new network type can disrupt a sensitive ecosystem, and some devices might start returning errors. This adds pressure to the IT administrators as they have to plan the transition so that there are no flaws. It’s the best idea in such cases to start the transition to ZTA by gradually phasing out the most threatening risks.

Lack of scaleable enforcing technology

There is no universal scaleable enforcement technology that could be adapted throughout the company. Your administrators will likely rely on internal segmentation, distributed firewalls, or NAC systems. Still, their effectiveness will depend on your configuration more than some other mechanisms. They won’t be very straightforward, either.

Lack of resources

It doesn’t help that IT budgets are regarded as an afterthought in most companies, and on average, only 9.8% is allocated to IT. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it approach has long served as a justification for why additional investments shouldn’t be made.

In addition, Zero Trust implementation requires additional work hours, strategy, and fine-tuning to yield the desired results. By definition, it’s an expensive and lengthy process. Seeing how budgets for IT aren’t that high for most companies, the lack of resources might be a principal reason holding the company back.

How can NordLayer help? 

NordLayer provides Security Service Edge as part of the Secure Access Service Edge framework. Based on the Zero Trust model helps small to medium businesses in their transition to better cybersecurity.

The Primary NordLayers use case is secure remote access from off-site locations, emphasizing strict authentication and authorization. Fully cloud-based, the setup can be controlled via a web dashboard and is software-only, eliminating the need for hardware deployment. 

This tool can easily set up network segmentation to prevent unauthorized users from accessing sensitive data. It’s an easily deployable and scalable solution.

Get in touch with our team and discover more about our approach that could improve your organization’s cybersecurity status.

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