The FBI has issued a cybersecurity warning for healthcare providers on the use of FTP servers. FTP servers should have authentication controls in place to ensure only authorized individuals can access stored data. However, when FTP servers are in anonymous mode, access can be gained with a generic username and password. In some cases, access is possible without a password.

The usernames that provide access could be as simple as ‘FTP’ or ‘anonymous’ and lists of usernames can be easily found on the Internet. Cycling through a short list of possible usernames is likely to take seconds or minutes at the most and access to stored data can be gained without any hacking skills. Data stored on an anonymous FTP server could be accessed by anyone.

The FBI cybersecurity warning for healthcare providers cites research conducted by the University of Michigan in 2015 that shows the scale of the problem. The study revealed there are more than one million FTP servers in use around the world that allow anonymous access. Any data stored on those servers could be freely accessed by the public. Should those FTP servers contain sensitive data such as protected health information, it could easily be stolen and used for malicious purposes.

Firewalls and other perimeter defenses serve to protect networks and EHRs from cyberattacks, yet FTP servers could be a gaping hole in an organization’s defenses. Many healthcare providers use FTP servers to allow data to be easily shared with business associates and other healthcare entities. Yet, if authentication controls are not used they are a data breach waiting to happen.

The FBI has warned all medical and dental organizations to ensure that no sensitive data are stored on anonymous FTP servers and advises healthcare organizations to check if their servers are running in anonymous mode. Smaller organizations without the resources of large healthcare systems are more likely to have overlooked this vulnerability; although checks should be performed by all healthcare organizations.     

The cybersecurity warning for healthcare providers explains the risks extend beyond the theft of sensitive data. If access to the servers can be gained, FTP servers could be used to store illegal material. Healthcare organizations may have cybersecurity solutions in place to monitor for data being exfiltrated, but not data that are being uploaded. Hacking tools could be uploaded to the servers or they could be used to share illegal content.

If FTP servers must be run in anonymous mode, healthcare organizations should ensure the servers only contain data that is publicly available.