Research exposes crucial gaps in NHS’s cyber security capabilities

The NHS was the UK’s number one victim of data breaches last year

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New research has exposed the gap between the perceived strength of IT security measures in the NHS and the actual level of protection built into networks.

In a study by Sophos of 250 NHS-employed CIOs, CTOs and IT managers, 76% said they have suitable protection against cybercrime and data loss, and 72% claimed data loss is their biggest concern in terms of IT security.

However, while 84% stated that encryption is becoming a necessity, further study results found that encryption levels are worryingly low across the NHS:

Only 10% of respondents said encryption is well established within their organisation. Just 59% said they had email encryption, 49% file share encryption, and 34% encryption of data stored in the cloud.

>See also: How the NHS can take a 21st century approach to data security

According to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), the NHS was the UK’s number one victim of data breaches last year. Data leakage and loss of hardware, such as USB keys, were two of the most prevalent factors in these breaches.

The NHS is undergoing a period of significant change – balancing budget cuts while innovating to drive improvements to patient care.

As a result, many NHS organisations are driving major operational change, including embracing mobile healthcare. In the Sophos survey, 42% of respondents cited greater use of mobile devices in the community as one of the initiatives driving changes in IT security.

This might be, for example, a community midwife using a tablet to record patient data instead of needing to carry around multiple patient files.

Health workers are increasingly on the move and using mobile working practices to stay connected. The impact of the widespread use of mobile devices out in the community on the security of an entire NHS organisation’s network should not be underestimated.

With this step change in working practices comes new requirements, and IT managers need to ensure their organisation’s IT security is joined up to adequately protect users, devices and data at all points.

Consolidation and investment

The survey also showed that decision makers in the NHS are beginning to understand the importance of consolidation for improved protection. Nearly half (42%) said they are considering consolidating their IT security providers, with 55% stating the main motivation for this as cost savings.

This is no surprise, considering 96% of organisations said they have experienced operational changes in the past year, with the most common change being budget cuts (60%).

Survey respondents said they expect the average cut to IT budgets to be 6%, so budget will remain core to any investment decisions being made.

>See also: FoI request exposes ‘alarming’ lack of cyber security in the NHS

Of those not considering consolidating their suppliers, 54% said that they have many different requirements and their belief is that a sole provider cannot deliver on all requirements. Many in the industry would argue that this is an outdated perception that can lead to gaps within network security.

“This study highlights that NHS organisations still face significant IT security issues and that IT decision makers have work to do to address gaps in their security,” said Jonathan Lee, UK healthcare sector manager at Sophos UK and Ireland. “Failure to take the necessary precautions to keep cybercriminals out, to safeguard data and ultimately to protect patients and staff will continue to cause significant problems for NHS organisations.

“However, budget cuts and changes to working practices, such as the increase in mobile working, all present significant challenges within the sector.

“There is an important shift taking place in IT security. Organisations need a comprehensive security system that encrypts sensitive data, protects all classes of endpoints and communicates with network security systems.”

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