Patients and Hospitals Threatened by Increasing Ransomware Attacks

U.S. hospitals have been faced with an alarming surge in ransomware attacks this year. In these attacks, hospitals find themselves without access to critical patient information. In addition to seriously threatening patient safety, hospitals themselves are also harmed. Necessary interruptions to services while recovering from the attacks damage organizations’ reputations, and financial costs can include ransoms along with costs associated with liability.

Ransomware attacks are a growing threat. Organizations need to focus on necessary steps to protect their data and to stay current on new security requirements arising to meet this threat.

In the first part of this two-part series, we’ll look at what ransomware is, and what makes hospitals and healthcare organizations particularly vulnerable to ransomware attacks. In the second part, we’ll take a look at solutions all organizations (not just hospitals) can employ to mitigate the risk from these attacks, and also discuss possible future changes to security requirements that may develop in response to the increase of ransomware related cybercrime.

What is ransomware?

In their January 2016 brief, “Hacking Healthcare IT in 2016,” the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology refers to  ransomware as “the primary threat to organizations in 2016.” Ransomware is a specific type of malware that works by preventing or limiting users from accessing their systems or data, often by encrypting the data. This kind of malware requires payment of a ransom in order to regain access to systems or data. Of course, even after a ransom is paid, there is no guarantee that access will actually be returned or that data will be undamaged. Some examples of ransomware include Locky, CryptoLocker, and CTB Locker.

Why are healthcare organizations so vulnerable to ransomware attacks?

Within just the past few months, hospitals that have reported attacks include Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, Methodist Hospital in Kentucky, and MedStar Health’s ten hospitals and over 250 outpatient clinics in Maryland and Washington D.C. Officials suspect that additional attacks may have gone unreported by organizations choosing to deal with such matters internally rather than risking the damage to their reputations that publicly acknowledging vulnerabilities can bring.

What makes hospitals such tempting targets for cyber criminals? One reason is that hospitals rely on having fast access to accurate and up-to-date information in order to provide care for patients. This means they are more likely to pay a ransom than other organizations might be, as they are trying to avoid harm to their patients (up to and including death) and of course, lawsuits.

Another less obvious reason is that hospitals have until present been focused primarily on educating their employees mainly in HIPAA compliance, and much less on cybersecurity. This leaves hospitals employees especially likely to fall victim to social engineering attacks such as phishing, which can give ransomware attackers the entry they need.

The older software used by some hospitals can also provide a tempting point of entry for ransomware attackers. For example, a recent alert from the Department of Homeland Security’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team warns that certain systems used to automate the tracking and dispensing of medical supplies contain numerous security vulnerabilities.

Additional Links:
TrendMicro – History of ransomware. – Why hospitals are the perfert target for ransomware. – Security flaws in legacy medical supply systems.