United States: "Digital Quarantine" Or Vaccination? What Cybersecurity Experts Can Learn From Health Care

Last Updated: February 12 2015
Article by Elizabeth G. Litten

Perhaps the health care industry has a cybersecurity solution staring us in the face:  vaccines.  Perhaps we should be trying to vaccinate our data storage systems rather than relying on firewalls to quarantine them.  In an article posted on www.philly.com, Associated Press author Youkyung Lee says cybersecurity defense has traditionally been based "on the idea that computers could be protected by a digital quarantine." Instead, posits Lee, experts need to focus on neutralizing attackers once they get inside a data system, rather than continuing the often-futile attempt to keep them out of the system.

Sounds like a digital vaccination to me.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, the United States is facing a multi-state measles outbreak associated primarily with unvaccinated individuals, and much has been written about parents who refuse to vaccinate their children and thereby unnecessarily and irresponsibly expose others to risk of infection.  When it comes to protecting the safety and wellbeing of protected health information and personal data maintained in a computer system, perhaps the vaccination approach is the way to go.

I turned to www.vaccines.gov for a quick description of how vaccines work in the human body.  Under "Mounting an Immune Response", the site describes the skin in a way that makes it sound like a computer system's firewall – it "provides an imposing barrier to invading microbes.  It is generally penetrable only through cuts or tiny abrasions."  The digestive and respiratory tracts also work like firewalls, using acids and respiratory reflexes (coughs and sneezes) to destroy or expel invading microbes.  If the invading microbes succeed in crossing the body's natural firewalls, the body's immune system will kick in to thwart invading bacteria, viruses and parasites.  That's where vaccines become helpful:

"Vaccines consist of killed or modified microbes, parts of microbes, or microbial DNA that trick the body into thinking an infection has occurred.  A vaccinated person's immune system attacks the harmless vaccine and prepares for invasions against the kinds of microbe the vaccine contained.  In this way, the person becomes immunized against the microbe:  if re-exposure to the infectious microbe occurs, the immune system will quickly recognize how to stop the infection."

The HIPAA Security Rule also seems to reflect a "digital quarantine" or firewall approach when it comes to implementing technical safeguards, describing implementation of access control, authentication procedures, and transmission security. (However, the requirement that covered entities and business associates implement audit controls that "record and examine activity in information systems that contain or use electronic protected health information" sounds a bit like the first step needed to develop an effective vaccine against hackers.)

So, since efforts to thwart hackers by using a "digital quarantine" (Lee's description) or firewall type of barrier have been about as successful as relying on hand-washing and avoidance of theme parks to thwart measles, let's hope cyber experts start to focus on developing digital vaccines.  These vaccines could not only train data systems to detect and stop a hacker after it has entered the system and before it can damage, remove, or copy the data, but also perhaps even trap the virus or other hacking mechanism for identification, analysis, and law enforcement purposes.

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