It was déjà vu for data security expert Michael "Mac" McMillan when he heard a hacker had tried to extort money from an Illinois medical group whose patient records and e-mail messages the intruder had accessed and encrypted.
"This is classic," McMillian said. "We saw this countless times in the 1990s with community banks. They would get access to the accounts with people's data and send the bank director a ransom note."
McMillan is the founder and CEO of CynergisTek, an Austin, Texas-based security consulting firm serving the healthcare industry.
He hasn't heard of another incidence in the healthcare industry in which encryption was used to hold a provider's data hostage—at least not yet—but "it doesn't surprise me that it's happened," he said.
When other industries computerized their business processes, security trailed, McMillan said. "They all went through these phases, where the big guys at the top did it first and the little guys dragged their feet."
In healthcare, "with all this digitization and data-sharing, you become more and more vulnerable to threats from the Internet," he said.
The hack job on the computer system of three surgeons in Libertyville, Ill., a northwest suburb of Chicago, was discovered in June but wasn't publicly revealed until recently. The investigation was turned over to the Secret Service—an agency most widely known for its work protecting the U.S. president, but that possesses other skills, too.
"The Secret Service is the organization within the federal government that has executive agency over computer security crimes," McMillan said. "Typically, when they get involved, there is some form of interstate extortion or threat or something big that can cross state lines or international boundaries."