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Why mainframe security risks are largely unrecognized

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In the past year, cybercriminals have made the healthcare industry a top target for sophisticated ransomware attacks, often exploiting known but unpatched vulnerabilities to gain access to clinical information.

The implications of those reported but unresolved vulnerabilities are scary, considering the wealth of patient data hospitals manage, as well as the potential life-and-death situations involved. But, what about the vulnerabilities that aren’t even on the radar of hospital IT departments?

Most modern hospitals depend on multiple electronic systems and connected IoT devices to operate around the clock. The largest hospitals also rely on mainframes to safeguard some of their mission-critical financial and billing data. The security of hospital systems isn’t always up to sufficiently high standards. And, while mainframes are arguably the most securable platform, they still aren’t impenetrable. Mainframes have weaknesses, like code-based vulnerabilities that, if exploited, could endanger the entire enterprise.

Essentially, code-based vulnerabilities are areas of flawed code that allow a program to bypass the security controls put in place by the operating system and the organization. There’s a huge amount of risk involved with operating system-level vulnerabilities. If a hacker were to exploit a single trap door vulnerability, they would have access to all of the data, applications and users on the entire mainframe.

In a hospital setting, that means access to everything ranging from patients’ personal information, to doctor’s orders, to insurance coverage, and so on. Hospitals manage a wealth of sensitive information about their patients, like SSNs, addresses, contact information and more, that is considered to be protected heath information (PHI).

If a bad actor gains access to the enterprise through the mainframe, they would have the potential to cripple many of the hospital’s most important functions. For example, many medical devices today are peer-to-peer or wirelessly attached to the clinical information system. Imagine if a hacker infiltrates the system, or even takes the mainframe down—those medical devices and the corresponding medicine could no longer be accurately managed and administered.

Part of the challenge when it comes to managing mainframe security is that many IT professionals working on mainframes are unaware of these code-based vulnerabilities. On top of that, hospital IT departments right now are spread thin monitoring all the various systems. A recent survey of nearly 2,500 healthcare security experts revealed that 96 percent believe that bad actors are outpacing the defenses of their medical enterprises.

Although IT managers may be technically savvy, there are simply not enough of them to track all of the risks and ensure their mainframes are always up, running and protected. The good news is that these vulnerabilities are patchable. Of course, vulnerabilities have to be discovered first before they can be patched. It’s time for hospitals to invest in the people and practices that will better guard their IT systems and patient data.

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