Medical Device Network Security, the prognosis is good

An image of a medical service tablet used for viewing brain scans

Medical Device Network Security, the prognosis is good

Are networked medical devices secure? We know that a significant number of medical devices have security vulnerabilities, known and unknown. Identifying the known vulnerabilities before a threat infects the device then eventually the network is the role of having a solid cyber security strategy in place. In Australia, the health sector has recorded the highest amount of data breaches since the Mandatory Data Breach regulations came into effect earlier this year.

The reporting tends to ignore the fact that the security of a device does not equate to the security of the system. The chants of self-appointed researchers and some fear-slinging security vendors would have us believe we’re all at risk of remotely controlled death, triggered by smart-phone.

In this article, we explore the current landscape of the network security for medical devices and architecture to ensure a secure environment.

So are medical devices secure?
The likelihood of actual harm from medical device insecurity is of course far removed from the worst case scenarios we read about in often-sensational media reporting or researcher claims. Those of us that actually work with medical systems know this. Nevertheless, vulnerabilities and threats obviously exist and medical devices are high-value targets. A better question perhaps would be “can networked medical devices operate safely and acceptable level risk to patients?”. Addressing this question, of course, is the daily challenge of professionals charged with managing risks on clinical networks.

What makes medical devices so different?
Just as for other waves of cybersecurity hysteria around IoT and Critical Infrastructure sabotage, medical devices are often cited as vulnerable to manipulation into misbehaving or leaking information. It is important to realise as security professionals that biomedical devices have unique needs that don’t always neatly fit into regular security practices. Like other critical infrastructure systems, medical devices and their local ecosystems are commissioned and tested extensively and formally so that they function exactly according to manufacturer specs. Change to these systems becomes complex, risky and expensive.

How then can devices be protected, yet allowed to communicate with all their necessary integration points – local users, remote support, external vendor monitoring systems, head-end servers, cloud-based health record services, other connected health systems?

Enter the modern security-centric network. A modern network security infrastructure can provide increasingly sophisticated protections from known attack vectors and these advances are the main thrust of this post. What’s changed? The loosely connected, hardware-centric, open networks of the past are giving way to Application Programming Interface (API) driven, integrated, software-centric, “zero-trust model” networks of today providing very powerful tools to achieve secure network architectures.

But first, let’s take a look at the external factors driving risk.

The Healthcare Threat Environment

There’s no question medical devices in clinical environments make high-value targets for cyber-criminals, where a breach of security could be both profitable to the attacker, potentially catastrophic to the victim, and very costly to a healthcare delivery organisation’s reputation.
Since the mandatory data breach notification scheme came into effect in Australia on February 22, health service providers have been top of the class when it comes to the number of data breaches reported, importantly though, a large percentage of the reported breaches were the result of either human error or a lack of basic cyber hygiene.

Threats commonly referenced for medical device security include malware infections, targeted attacks and Advanced Persistent Threats (APT’s), Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, theft, unintentional misuse and directly connected devices (e.g. USB devices).

Further complicating the security landscape the increasing integration with cloud-based electronic medical record systems represents the new risk.

Secure Network Architectures
Network Access Control (NAC) has been readily available for many years providing reliable and highly secure protection where it is needed most – at the point of access, the network edge. Pushing strong identity and access control mechanisms to the network edge using protocols like RADIUS and 802.1x, goes a long way to preventing unauthorised access. Use of a comprehensive NAC solution like the Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE) now allows for extremely flexible deployment models, easily supporting both newer and older legacy devices – a major plus when dealing with a diverse mix of medical device capabilities.

Not only does NAC protect the wired and wireless network edge, it supports the dynamic placement of devices into segregated and isolated sub-networks (zones). Furthermore, the telemetry provided by connection attempts provides excellent visibility of not only the movement and connection state of device assets but the ability to detect unauthorised connection attempts and take action accordingly.

The Medical NAC Ecosystem
A medical grade network ecosystem centred on NAC now enables highly flexible and integrated security to be achieved. Now that a security ‘event bus’ using the likes of Cisco’s pxGrid can be tightly coupled to both the NAC system, the segregation firewalls and beyond that to secure operations platforms like SIEM and automation tools, comprehensive and integrated security is readily achievable.

These abilities go well beyond traditional network segmentation and access control mandated by most standards. Let’s consider some of these. The ability to provide effective micro (device-level) segregation and isolation policy for one. The ability to quarantine unauthorised devices before they can send a malicious packet. The ability to perform real-time behavioural analytics on traffic flows. The ability to link security systems together and share context and behaviour. The ability to respond automatically to abnormal conditions and coordinate countermeasures using API calls.

Features within the Cisco Medical NAC ecosystem are underpinned by ISE/pxGrid, Stealthwatch and optional elements of Cisco’s Trustsec architecture. Of particular note are features like these:

• Medical device profiling – More than 250 profiles for medical devices out of the box with ability to customise your own. The ability to automatically detect the device type can really boost the flexibility in policy authorisation control and provides excellent visibility into the activity of the device fleet.

• Downloadable Access Lists (dACL) – Layer-3 packet filtering at the edge, including the option for Active Directory integration for per-device/class ACL’s using custom attributes

• Identity PSK – The recently introduced capability to use multiple pre-shared keys on the same WLAN SSID, with the dual benefit of keeping the number of SSID’s low and supporting migrations, key updates and per device/group PSK

• pxGrid – Cisco’s context and event integration publisher/subscriber backbone for Rapid Threat Containment and multi-platform.

• Stealthwatch – The network flow security analytics engine, detecting abnormal network behaviour and attacks

• SIEM integration – Push logs and events into your log repository or SIEM for maximum analytical and troubleshooting value

• API driven automation and response capability – All of the products mentioned have API interfaces that your DevOps or SecOps team can take advantage of to start exploiting full visibility and control of the environment.


Using network segmentation to protect devices and medical records from threats requires Medical-Grade NAC. By monitoring behaviours to detect and contain threats, healthcare security can be improved drastically to mitigate risks to the organisation. Putting it all together requires some planning and experience, but the tools available today are vastly improved and proven in the field today. As the saying goes, the whole is now much bigger than the sum of the parts when the parts fit together effectively. This, of course, is just a component of the overall security approach, but as the point of control closest to the medical device, it is a critical one to get right.

Cube Cyber, a Cisco Certified provider based in Brisbane, has been delivering solutions for the healthcare industry since 2015. Contact us today on 1300 085 366 to discuss your next project.





Office of the Australian Information Commissioner

US Health Care Breach register

University of San Diego “Cyber Security Threats in 2018”

NIST / NCCoE Infusion Pump Security August 2018 


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