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Hospital confirms copying of patient files by hacker
(IDG) -- A major university hospital in Seattle Thursday confirmed that a hacker penetrated its computer network last summer and made off with files containing information about 5,000 patients.
Officials at the University of Washington Medical Center said the hacker -- who calls himself "Kane" -- stole user passwords and copied thousands of files while he had access to the hospital's systems. The hacker slipped into the network through a server in the hospital's pathology department, said medical center CIO Tom Martin.
The medical center suspected at the time that its network had been infiltrated and took steps to cut off the hacker's access, Martin said. But, he added, the hospital was unaware that the files had been pilfered until Kane provided information about the intrusion to SecurityFocus.com, a San Mateo, Calif.-based Web site that focuses on security issues.
Kane, who said he lives in the Netherlands, shared some of the copied files with SecurityFocus.com to verify that he had accessed the sensitive data. SecurityFocus.com staffer Kevin Poulsen said Kane views himself as an ethical hacker and indicated that he simply wanted to expose the vulnerability of the hospital's network. "He portrays himself as more of a whistle-blower than as an outlaw," Poulsen said.
But after being informed of the file copying, officials at the medical center reported the hacking incident to the FBI for investigation, Martin said. The hospital also beefed up its firewalls in an effort to better protect its network, and it began notifying all of the patients whose personal information was in the files copied by Kane.
In a statement, the hospital said the copied information wasn't directly related to the delivery of care to its patients. Instead, it added, the information was stored in administrative databases and was used for patient tracking and for following up on research studies.
"There is no evidence that anyone has breached our main electronic medical records system," the hospital said. "We assure patients and the public that this system remains fully protected by the highest levels of security possible."
Martin said Kane used sniffer software to steal the electronic identifications of a number of hospital employees from an exposed server and then used those credentials to access thousands of files related to patients in the medical center's cardiology and rehabilitation departments. Martin added that the hospital plans to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a set of privacy and security guidelines that the federal government is close to finalizing.
The hacking incident wasn't that unusual and appears to have been relatively minor compared with the amount of damage that a malicious attacker could have inflicted, said Wes Rishel, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Rishel described Kane's intrusion as "a classic penetration of a secondary system" that was running a personal application with collected data, rather than an attack on the hospital's main database server.
"Academic medical centers are prone to this, as part of the spirit of academic freedom that creates pressure for open access," Rishel said. The only major impact from the hacking incident might be to get policymakers in Washington to push through the HIPAA as quickly as possible, he added.
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