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Blog | Sep 21, 2017

Cybercriminals strike the NHS, again

On August 25, Scotland’s third-largest National Health Service (NHS) trust was hit by malware, again. This is the second time within just months, after being one of the worst-affected during the global WannaCry ransomware attack in May. As a result, the trust is (again) requesting that patients do not attend the hospital unless it is “essential.”

The virus – which was later announced to be ransomware – began on a Friday afternoon with IT experiencing difficulties that affected hospitals and GP practices. The trust is responsible for the care of more than 650,000 people living in North and South Lanarkshire in Scotland, including three general hospitals and numerous GP surgeries, dentists, pharmacists and other services.

“When it comes to finding out which networks are vulnerable to attack, media coverage is one of the best sources.”

In some ways, this second attack is not surprising. After cybercriminals were successful in their attacks on the NHS with WannaCry, it makes sense that they would want to try again. Of course, that’s not to say that these are the same attackers. When it comes to finding out which networks are vulnerable to attack, media coverage is one of the best sources. Cybercriminals that heard about WannaCry’s success against NHS in the news could have decided to pursue them again.

The healthcare industry faces two major threats: ransomware and fraud. While fraud is a much bigger threat to tackle—seeing as it’s not as widespread or financially impactful—ransomware is getting more attention from regulatory bodies because of the larger impact it can have on the economy. And yet, the healthcare industry does not face the same stringent cybersecurity regulations that other industries do, which can put them at a disadvantage.

“While businesses may experience a loss of revenue if they are breached, hospitals can experience a loss of life.”

That’s not to say that hospitals aren’t sometimes an attractive target. Many of them were built and developed without cybersecurity in mind, and have been unable to adapt quickly enough to a changing security landscape, despite the fact that they have become completely Internet-connected infrastructures. Furthermore, if the primary delivery method of these threats is phishing and nearly every employee has access to the same confidential data—without sufficient security awareness training, it’s not surprising cybercriminals can break in.

Of course, the consequences hospitals face under cyberattack are particularly devastating. While businesses may experience a loss of revenue if they are breached, hospitals can experience a loss of life. Unfortunately, improving cybersecurity practices within the healthcare industry isn’t that simple. It’s important to recognize that hospitals run a 24x7 operation, which can make it harder for their IT teams to implement a policy around patching and software updates. They’re also publicly funded in the UK, which means they may feel they don’t have the resources they need to develop their cybersecurity department.

Nonetheless, there is much that hospitals can and should be doing. A report by the NHS Digital’s head of security was recently leaked, which stated there was a “false sense of security” among staff over cyberthreats. The report highlighted a range of security failings and found that:

  • Many staff had weak passwords.
  • Many GP practices and clinical commissioning groups had good security policies but weren’t implementing them.
  • Many of the NHS organisations studied had not installed vital security updates.
  • “Practically all” NHS organisations give any staff member with a computer log in access to confidential data. Patient records, back up files and even passwords are all accessible even to very junior or temporary staff members.

With hospitals, the focus on cybersecurity has to come from the top. It is a holistic problem that requires holistic solutions. If a hospital doesn’t already have a CISO, appointing one should be the top priority. These individuals can define and develop risk mitigation strategies, and be an advocate for cybersecurity to the board of directors.

Fortunately, this is what is happening for the NHS. The Labour party has told Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, to take “urgent” action to prevent another devastating cyberattack on the NHS, including ensuring passwords are strengthened, data protections are tightened, and a full, independent inquiry is launched into the WannaCry attack.[1] The NHS is learning first hand from this experience not to mess with inadequate cybersecurity practices, and so should you.

Learn more

Today’s cyber-attackers are increasingly innovating and the threat landscape is constantly changing. Many healthcare organizations lack the resources and security measures needed to protect themselves.


Viktors Engelbrehts

Viktors Engelbrehts

Director, Threat Intelligence

Viktors and his team of researchers and intelligence analysts are committed to providing timely, high-quality intelligence analysis and industry insights.