Towards a Secure Framework for mHealth. A Case Study in Mobile Data Collection Systems
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The rapid growth in the mobile communications technology and wide cellular coverage created an opportunity to satisfy the demand for low-cost health care solutions. Mobile Health (a.k.a. mHealth) is a promising health service delivery concept that utilizes mobile communications technology to bridge the gap between remotely and sparsely populated communities and health care providers. So far, several mHealth applications have been developed and deployed in the field. Among those, a digital information gathering and dissemination system using mobile devices is the main focus of this work. This type of mHealth system is called Mobile Data Collection System (MDCS). Although MDCS succeeds over traditional paper form based data collection; it has also brought unique challenges such as data security in mobile communications technology. Despite MDCS are often used to collect sensitive health-related data, more work was needed to address security issues like confidentiality, integrity, availability and authentication to secure sensitive health related information in storage, data exchange and processing. When we began this work, Java ME enabled feature phones, that dominated the scene for a decade, were the choice of most MDCS. At that time, in collaboration with our partner project, we proposed a secure custom protocol. The protocol has been implemented, tested, and integrated into our reference MDCS. We have confirmed the flexibility of our secure solution by retrofitting the existing openXdata system with user authentication, secure storage and communication solutions by modifying only a few lines of code in the client-server application. However, in the past few years, the explosion of new mobile platforms and cloudbased services became game changer in our work. The move from feature phones to smartphones brought to the table the need to reevaluate, redesign, and port our earlier secure solution to smartphones based MDCS by considering the unique features and challenges of both smart phone clients and cloud-based server-side deployments. In this dissertation, we analyze the challenges in securing mobile data collection systems deployed in remote areas, in resources-constrained environment, and in low project budget settings. We present a flexible and secure framework that offers user authentication both online and off-line, secure mobile storage, secure communication, and secure cloud storage. Besides, the framework provides data integrity, user account and data recovery, and multi-user management and is designed to be easily integrated in existing MDCS with minimal effort. Although fundamental security issues are conceptually identical in both old feature phone and current smartphone based solutions, our framework and the proposed solutions address the unique aspects of both mobile platforms. We also discuss the solution we designed for older Java ME based devices, and how they are still relevant. For this work, we collaborated with the open-source MDCS, openXdata and Open Data Kit (ODK).