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When Doctors Take Computers Home: Houston Burglary Points to Security Breach
The crime has the look of an ordinary burglary. And many people are
hoping that it was just that.
On April 30, someone broke into a Houston home and got away with
electronic equipment—the usual stuff: two television sets, an iPad, a monitor,
a suitcase, and two laptops.
One of the laptops belonged to MD Anderson Cancer Center. It contained
unencrypted information on 30,000 patients—and financial information, credit
card numbers and the social security numbers of 10,000 of these patients.
The problem is, with doctors taking data home and on the road—typically
on their laptop computers—a disaster of this sort can strike anywhere at any
point. A Google search for words “doctor laptop patient information” can have
a chilling effect.
This information is valuable. According to industry experts, the black market
value of one illicitly obtained credit card number is around $3, and a sequence of
financial information can command much higher amounts.
“We have no reason to believe that this thief knows what he has,” said
DeDe DeStefano, director of external communications at MD Anderson. “It’s a
catch-22. We want to alert the patients, but we don’t want to alert the thief to
what he has that might put patients’ information in jeopardy.”
MD Anderson’s laptops have gone missing before, although in those cases
the machines were either encrypted or contained no patient health information.
Now, the cancer center has a lot of work to do.
Its information technicians are encrypting the 25,000-plus devices that are
used by the institution’s staff members. Employees who use these devices at
home or on the road sign “off-site agreements,” but accounting for all of them
could be a staggering process.
Recently, an MD Anderson physician who showed up to have his machine
encrypted, found himself standing in line behind a colleague who had brought
in six laptops.
“The question is not whether they have one laptop,” said the physician,
who spoke on condition that his name not be used. “The question is, do they
have six? And what happened to the first five when they got the sixth?”