March 11, 2013, 10:42 AM — From the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Department: Security experts trying to tell a Pennsylvania hospital that a pile of its sensitive data belonging to staff -- and possibly patients -- was sitting exposed on the Internet were stymied for five days recently by the fact that no one at the medical facility would respond to their repeated warnings.
Moreover, says one of the experts, this kind of situation happens with alarming regularity.
"This is more commonplace than you might suspect," says a healthcare professional who volunteers for the Open Security Foundation and blogs about privacy issues under the pseudonym Dissent Doe. "I've gone through hoops trying to notify various city agencies at times, and have gotten no responses to attempts to alert a major Canadian newspaper, a major U.S. health insurer where patient info was available on the web if you knew where to look, and a number of small businesses. And those are just the ones I can recall offhand."
In the case of the hospital, Dissent Doe and another OSF member made multiple phone calls, filled out a formal (outsourced) service desk ticket addressed to the hospital's systems administrator and technical analyst, and even sent an email to the hospital's CEO.
They got no response. (She was keeping the name of the hospital confidential out of concern that the vulnerability responsible for the data breach remained unaddressed.)
"The data were dumped on one of the ever-popular paste sites for hackers. Some of the data appear to be from their physician directory, which is no big deal. But there are other databases dumped that contain personally identifiable info such as contact details. One of the databases might be of newsletter subscribers. The other one... well, I have no clue. There are also a few names with email addresses, usernames, and encrypted passwords. I don't know whether those are admin passwords to the server."
Finally she tried a back-channel approach to get the hospital's attention.
"I did speak with a reporter local to them," she says. "My hope is that they'd take a phone call from a reporter if they won't respond to us. At least that way they'll find out they have a problem."
Contacting the local press is always an excellent idea, no matter the issue involved.
Dissent Doe also wrote about the episode on her blog:
"Every hospital tells patients that they take the privacy and security of their information seriously," she wrote. "I wouldn't believe them if they don't respond to security alerts and make people jump through hoops just to try to inform them that they may have had a breach involving personal information. And I certainly wouldn't believe any hospital that doesn't even return a phone call when you have left them a message that they may have a security problem with their public-facing server."
Eventually, the local reporter managed to make contact with a hospital administrator who told him that they were already aware of the breach and had rectified it earlier.
Even if that's true, Dissent Doe notes: "That doesn't explain why they didn't have the courtesy to respond when they could see that we were trying to alert them."
General incompetence probably explains that part.
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