Combatting Dark Web Healthcare Data Breaches

Navigating through healthcare’s digital minefield, how safe is your personal data from the dark web? Discover in this article the paths through which healthcare information becomes exposed on the dark web, the value it holds for cybercriminals, and the critical steps to safeguard against ransomware and this escalating threat.

Key Takeaways

  • Healthcare data is highly valued on the dark web due to its comprehensiveness, leading to increased risk of cyberattacks involving ransomware and identity theft targeting outdated healthcare IT infrastructure and operating systems.

  • Ransomware attacks on healthcare providers have direct consequences on patient care, leading to compromised patient safety, delayed critical care, potential increases in patient mortality rates, along with severe operational and financial implications for the organisations.

  • Robust cybersecurity measures, including the implementation of multi-factor authentication, encryption, and ongoing staff training on cybersecurity best practices, are essential for healthcare providers to secure patient data against cyber threats.

The Dark Web and Healthcare Data

Illustration of a dark web marketplace with blurred faces and obscured text

The dark web (Tor Browser), an encrypted part of the internet, has become a notorious hub for illicit activities, including the sale of stolen data. A major attraction for cybercriminals is healthcare data, as a single health record can fetch up to $1,000 on the dark web, far outstripping the value of credit card or Social Security numbers. This is primarily due to the potential for identity theft and insurance fraud that healthcare data offers, making it a prime target for cybercriminals.

Regrettably, the dependence of many healthcare providers on outdated IT infrastructure and operating systems leaves them exposed to such cybersecurity attacks. The digitisation of healthcare data has further compounded the problem by making massive amounts of personal data available online. With the COVID-19 pandemic prompting changes in practices, including remote work, cybercriminals have found new vulnerabilities to exploit, increasing the risk of data breaches. Some key vulnerabilities include:

  • Weak passwords and lack of multi-factor authentication

  • Outdated software and unpatched systems

  • Insufficient employee training on cybersecurity best practices

  • Inadequate network security measures

  • Lack of encryption for sensitive data

It is crucial for healthcare providers to address these vulnerabilities and implement robust cybersecurity measures to protect patient data and prevent cyberattacks.

How Healthcare Organisations Become Targets

Healthcare organisations are particularly targeted by ransomware due to the critical nature of healthcare services and the high value of patient data. Ransomware is essentially a type of malware that prevents users from accessing their system or personal files and demands a ransom payment in order to regain access. The disruptive nature of ransomware attacks, coupled with the high value of patient data, often incites payment of ransoms, making this a profitable venture for cybercriminals.

Owing to its dependence on antiquated IT infrastructure and operating systems, the healthcare sector is increasingly falling prey to cybercriminals. The digitization of healthcare data has also made an enormous amount of sensitive information available online, setting the stage for cybercrime. Changes in practices necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as remote work, have created new vulnerabilities that cybercriminals are quick to exploit. Some key reasons why the healthcare sector is vulnerable to cyberattacks include:

  1. Antiquated IT infrastructure and operating systems

  2. Digitisation of healthcare data

  3. Availability of sensitive information online

  4. Changes in practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic

It is crucial for the healthcare sector to prioritize cybersecurity measures to protect patient data and prevent cyberattacks.

The Business of Stolen Healthcare Data

As cybercriminals have honed their skills in monetising stolen identities on a large scale, stolen healthcare data has become a valuable asset for them. They operate a multi-tier business for identity fraud, where credit card numbers and personal records are sold in bulk to brokers, who then sell them to individual buyers. This convoluted process makes it even more challenging for law enforcement to trace the theft back to the source.

The illicitly obtained information is commoditised and sold on black markets, with the price tag fluctuating depending on the potential value the buyer can derive. For instance, a medical record can sell for around $50, while bank account information can sell for $1,000 and up.

Stolen patient data is frequently combined with other illegally obtained information to build complete patient records, which contain detailed information about individuals. This often involves processing and packaging the stolen data to create comprehensive profiles. These full record sets are then sold to other criminals for various criminal activities such as identity theft and medication fraud.

Ransomware Attacks on Healthcare Providers

Photo of a computer screen with ransomware attack warning

Ransomware attacks on healthcare organisations are on a steady upward trend, with 34% of such organisations reporting an attack in 2021. But the impact of these attacks extends far beyond the immediate disruption of services. They can lead to increased patient stay lengths, required patient transfers, and delays in medical procedures. Even more concerning is that some ransomware attacks have been linked to a rise in complications from medical procedures and an increase in patient mortality rates.

Ransomware can penetrate healthcare networks using tactics such as:

  • Phishing, which involves sending fraudulent emails containing malicious links or viruses to healthcare staff

  • Complex attacks designed to gain extensive access before executing ransomware to maximize damage

  • Encrypting patients’ personal health information (PHI) and demanding a ransom for data restoration

  • Exploiting vulnerabilities in medical devices and software that form part of the provider’s network

Types of Ransomware Attacks

Emerging threats include double-extortion tactics, which involve threatening to leak sensitive information while also encrypting data. Some cybercriminals employ zero-day exploits for ransomware attacks, targeting previously unknown software vulnerabilities within healthcare systems. These types of attacks often catch healthcare organisations off guard, leading to catastrophic data breaches. In order to prevent such attacks, it is crucial for healthcare organisations to stay vigilant and invest in robust cybersecurity measures.

The threat of ransomware attacks is further amplified by the fact that healthcare data is often more valuable than other types of data. Unlike credit card information, which can be canceled and replaced, healthcare data is permanent and can be used to commit various types of fraud. This potential for illicit profit makes healthcare data a prime target for ransomware attacks.

Consequences of Ransomware Attacks

The fallout from ransomware attacks on healthcare providers includes:

  • Compromised patient safety

  • Delays in critical care

  • Potential increase in mortality rates

  • Longer hospital stays

  • Forced transfer of patients to other facilities

  • Disruptions in services that can lead to medical complications

  • Increased patient mortality

In addition to affecting patient care, ransomware attacks have several other consequences for healthcare organisations:

  • They disrupt hospital operations

  • They result in substantial financial costs

  • They can lead to potential HIPAA violations

  • They damage the reputation and legal standing of healthcare organisations

  • They can severely affect the integrity of patient data, leading to misdiagnoses and incorrect treatments

It is important to note that a complete medical record, unlike medical records such as credit cards, cannot simply be replaced or canceled.

Securing Patient Data: Best Practices for Healthcare Providers

Illustration of secure data transmission with encryption and multi-factor authentication

Although the scenario depicted so far is grim, healthcare providers have at their disposal effective methods to secure patient data. Some of these methods include:

  • Implementing access controls to ensure that only authorized users can access patient information and applications

  • Utilising multi-factor authentication to provide a stronger layer of security beyond just passwords

  • Encrypting patient data both in transit and at rest to prevent unauthorized access or interception.

These methods are just the start. Secure configuration, strong password enforcement, and remote wiping capabilities are also necessary for mobile devices used in healthcare settings. Risks from connected devices can be mitigated by segmenting them on separate networks and actively monitoring them. A system for logging and monitoring all access to and usage of patient data can aid in the prompt recognition of potential security incidents.

Implementing Strong Security Measures

Determining when and what data to encrypt is a crucial step in preventing unauthorized access to electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI). Encryption is considered essential by HIPAA to safeguard healthcare data, and organizations are tasked with choosing the extent and method that suits their operations. The introduction of multi-factor authentication (MFA) in healthcare is vital, requiring additional verification steps to enhance security.

Healthcare security trends are moving toward password-less authentication models to curb the risks associated with knowledge-based security factors. Healthcare employees must be trained in strong authentication practices, such as MFA, to defend against unauthorized access and manipulative attacks. Ongoing security awareness training equips healthcare staff with the necessary skills to make informed decisions when managing patient data.

Educating Staff on Cybersecurity Threats

Merely implementing security measures is not sufficient. Healthcare staff needs ongoing cybersecurity training through frequent, engaging, and environment-specific sessions rather than one-off lengthy lectures. Training modules should empower healthcare workers to identify and protect against phishing and social engineering by balancing compassion with caution. Education programs must also include best practices for mobile device security to inform healthcare staff about risks and policies related to the use of such devices.

Establishing a visible and approachable security team is pivotal to fostering a proactive security mindset among staff. Supported by leadership that comprehends the risks associated with cyber threats, a visible security team can help staff feel more comfortable reporting unusual activities and seeking guidance on security issues. This collaborative approach helps to create a culture where security is viewed as everyone’s responsibility.

How Patients Can Protect Their Health Information

Photo of a patient reviewing health records on a secure healthcare app

Though the onus of safeguarding patient data primarily falls on healthcare organisations, patients too have an important role to play in protecting their own health information. They can take proactive steps to prevent their health data from falling into the wrong hands.

This involves exercising caution when sharing personal health information and conducting thorough security assessments of healthcare apps before using them.

Sharing Data with Trusted Healthcare Providers

Patients should conduct a background check on the developers before using healthcare apps, looking for any past security breaches that could signal potential risks. They should also choose healthcare apps that provide strong security features, including data encryption and two-factor authentication.

Confirming that healthcare apps and their developers comply with HIPAA by reviewing privacy policies and terms of service is another important step to ensure the safety and confidentiality of their health data.

Monitoring Personal Health Records

Regularly checking personal health records for any unusual activities or unauthorized access can help detect potential data breaches early. Using public Wi-Fi to access personal health records should be avoided as these networks present a higher risk of cyber-attacks, potentially leading to unauthorized access to sensitive health information.

Patients should also avoid storing sensitive health data on their personal devices, particularly in the event of device loss or theft.

Collaborative Efforts to Fight Dark Web Healthcare Threats

Illustration of collaborative cybersecurity efforts with diverse professionals

Collaboration is the key to combating dark web threats. Joint cybersecurity exercises between organisations can help prepare healthcare providers for potential cyber threats. Shared resources and intelligence between healthcare entities can strengthen collective defense strategies, while monitoring search engines can provide valuable information on emerging risks.

Government agencies also play a significant role by disseminating guidelines for cybersecurity and supporting threat mitigation efforts.

The Role of Health and Human Services

To build resilience against cyber-attacks within the healthcare sector, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has laid out a dedicated cybersecurity strategy. This strategy involves the publication of voluntary, healthcare-specific cybersecurity performance goals to guide hospitals in fortifying their cyber defenses.

In addition, HHS is working on proposing new cybersecurity standards that would be enforceable and integrated with major healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Cybersecurity Partnerships

The HHS is striving to bolster healthcare cybersecurity by:

  • Transforming the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response into a nexus for coordinating incident response

  • Fostering robust partnerships with the healthcare industry

  • Partnering with cybersecurity firms to gain access to advanced security technologies and expertise.

These partnerships allow for real-time threat detection and faster incident response, further fortifying the healthcare industry against cyber threats.


In conclusion, the rise of cybercrime and the lucrative nature of healthcare data on the dark web pose significant threats to patient safety and privacy. However, through the implementation of strong security measures, ongoing staff training, dark web monitoring, patient vigilance, cybersecurity consultancy, collaborative efforts, healthcare organisations can strengthen their defense against these threats. It’s a shared responsibility – one that requires the collective effort of healthcare organisations, government agencies, cybersecurity firms, and patients themselves to ensure the integrity and security of healthcare data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the dark web and is it a threat?

The dark web is a threat to businesses, as criminals use it to launch cyber attacks and sell stolen data. Understanding how criminals operate in this hidden ecosystem and taking steps to protect your business is crucial for safety.

What are the disadvantages of the dark web?

The primary disadvantage of the dark web is its association with illegal activities such as drug trafficking, weapons trading, and human trafficking, which can lead to prosecution and imprisonment.

Can you be tracked on the dark web?

Yes, you can be tracked on the dark web.

Why are medical records on the deep web?

Medical records are on the deep web because they can be sold for a significant amount of money, making them a target for identity theft and fraudulent billing. This poses a serious risk to personal privacy and security.

Why is healthcare data valuable on the dark web?

Healthcare data is valuable on the dark web because it can be used for identity theft and insurance fraud, fetching up to $1,000 per record, much more than credit card or Social Security numbers.

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