Home > 2015 > Identity Theft

Wetware: The Major Data Security Threat You’ve Never Heard Of

Advertiser Disclosure Comments 0 Comments

For the first time, according to a recent study, criminal and state-sponsored hacks have surpassed human error as the leading cause of health care data breaches, and it could be costing the industry as much as $6 billion. With an average organization cost of $2.1 million per breach, the results of the study give rise to a question: How do you define human error?

More than half of the respondents in the Ponemon Institute’s Fifth Annual Benchmark Study on Privacy & Security of Healthcare Data, said their organization’s incident response team was underfunded or understaffed and roughly one third of respondents had no incident response plan in place at all—zip, nada, zilch—a fact that beggars the imagination at a moment when breaches have become the third certainty in life, and one that highlights the seeming no-show of the “first do no harm” approach to patients on the data breach-prone operations side of the health care industry.

While it is disconcerting that there isn’t a more robust incident response culture out there, perhaps more worrisome is the seeming lack of best practices pointed at heading off the problem before it happens. That’s where a new term comes into play.

Wetware is a term of art used by hackers to describe a non-firmware, hardware or software approach to getting the information they want to pilfer. In other words, people. (The human body is more than 60% water.) Wetware intrusions happen when a hacker exploits employee trust, predictable behavior or the failure to follow security protocols. It can be a spearphishing email, a crooked employee on the take or a file found while Dumpster diving—and, of course, all stripe of things in between. Whatever it is, there’s a human being involved.

The findings of the Ponemon Institute study point to the dire need for better wetware precautions when it comes to the security of health care records. Consider that 40% of the health organizations in the study reported more than five breaches in the past two years.

According to the study, since 2010 “the percentage of respondents who said their organization had multiple breaches increased from 60% to 79%.” Also by no means inconsequential is the fact that medical identity theft—where an imposter uses a victim’s credentials to obtain health care—nearly doubled in the past five years, from 1.4 million adult victims to more than 2.3 million in 2014.

The breaches comprising these figures were not all the size or severity of Anthem or Premera, which combined leaked extremely sensitive personally identifiable information like Social Security numbers, birth dates and bank account numbers belonging to more than 91 million consumers. While the $2.1 million average cost to health care organizations is eye-catching, it involved incidents with an average of 2,700 lost or stolen records, a figure that runs the gamut from Anthem and Premera to breaches that were decidedly on the smaller side.

As Larry Ponemon rightly pointed out in an interview with Dark Reading, while many of the incidents involved the exposure of “less than 100 records,” that in no way trivializes those events. According to the study, “Many medical identity theft victims report they have spent an average of $13,500 to restore their credit, reimburse their health care provider for fraudulent claims and correct inaccuracies in their health records.”

With 91% of the health care companies who responded to the study’s questions reporting at least one incident in the preceding two years, it’s clear that whatever we’re doing to address the health care breach problem is woefully inadequate. What’s more, it is clear that the problem is wetware. Better practices need to become part of the work culture in the health care industry.

When participating organizations in the study were asked what worried them the most (with three responses permitted), 70% said the biggest concern was a negligent or careless employee. That figure was followed by 40% of respondents who thought cyber attackers were the bigger worry and 33% who were worried about the security of public cloud servers. Respondents also cited insecure mobile apps (13%) and insecure medical devices (6%).

With 96% of respondents saying that they had a security incident involving lost or stolen devices, the fact that cyber attacks—state-backed and criminal—are the leading cause of breaches should keep you up at night, but the more terrifying take-away here is that doubtless many of those attacks wouldn’t be possible were it not for the human factor. There is plenty of overlap between the proactive criminal and the clumsy employee to make these figures start to seem like so much digital rain in a lost scene from “The Matrix.”

These days, smartphones and tablets are on the most-compromised or stolen list. Earlier on in the data breach pandemic, laptop computers and desktops were at the top of that list. While it is interesting on some level how the information gets compromised, at the end of the day, a breach is a breach is a breach. Health care industry: you’re all wet.

The bottom line here is that hackers of all stripe are having a field day because the wetware problem has been largely unaddressed, and until people become the alpha and omega of the process that leads to a zero tolerance solution, data breaches will continue apace.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

More on Identity Theft:

Image: iStock

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team