Blog | Mar 24, 2020

Do No Harm: A Call to Arms to Stop Healthcare Cyberattacks

We are grateful for the healthcare workers around the world that are on the frontlines fighting to save lives right now. It seems egregious and unthinkable that cybercriminals are attacking this industry because, even in wartime, a red cross painted on a vehicle or carried by personnel was used to identify them as non-combatants. Unfortunately, threat actors are actively seeking security gaps in healthcare system, hospital, laboratory and clinic networks while these critical care organizations are otherwise distracted with the war on Covid-19.

This trend didn’t happen overnight. Over the past several years, hospitals and medical facilities have endured more attacks than any other sector, as Beazley Breach Insights reported in 2018. And another report identified a 60 percent jump in attacks on hospitals in the first half of the 2019 year. Now, criminal groups are using coronavirus-themed websites to attract unwitting victims, or deploy Maldoc PDF or MS Word attachments to deliver malicious programs like ransomware.

Coronavirus-themed emails are targeting healthcare workers and institutions. The email, purportedly sent from their IT teams, with the subject “ALL STAFF: CORONA VIRUS AWARENESS” informs employees that "the institution is currently organizing a seminar for all staff to talk about this deadly virus" and solicits employees to click on a link to register. In one case, a Czech hospital was shuttered after a coronavirus themed attack disabled their network.

On Monday, Forbes reports that a laboratory facility ready to test potential coronavirus vaccines was struck by ransomware. The group behind the attack, Maze, published medical records online in order to encourage administrators to pay the ransom. This same group, one week earlier, published the personal and medical records of thousands of former patients at a UK medical research facility after it failed to disable their IT systems.

And ransomware kills. Researchers at Vanderbilt University compared the Department of Health and Human Services list of healthcare breaches with patient mortality rates at more than 3,000 hospitals. Of the 10 percent that had suffered cyberattacks, patient care increased by 2.7 minutes. What does this mean? It took an average of 2.7 minutes more for hospital staff to figure out what was wrong with a patient and to help them. That 2.7 minutes mattered. We’ve all seen on television shows, or even experienced in real life, how critical these moments are for a team of medical personnel. This 2.7 minutes has led to as many as 36 cybersecurity-related deaths per 10,000 patients.

A call to cyber arms

The criminal group that operates DopplerPaymer ransomware has said that they "always try to avoid hospitals, nursing homes” and would supply a free Decrypter code to any medical facility struck by accident.Maze promised to cease cyber hostilities against medical facilities until "the stabilization of the situation with the [COVID-19] virus.” The operators of Ryuk have yet to declare a ceasefire against noncombatants. This apparent altruistic behaviour is likely self-preservation, knowing a “gloves-are-off” retaliation from Western law enforcement and even military forces could be likely.

Healthcare facilities stand vulnerable at the best of times. Many facilities are open to the public and provide public WIFI side-by-side closed networks and internet-connected medical devices like pumps and heart monitors. These devices come and go off the network as needed, and are managed by medical professionals, not cyber experts. The same goes for systems managing patient records. The medical professionals using these systems are focused on saving patients’ lives, not double-checking links or attachments in official-looking emails. If they are showing diligence, it’s towards those in their care. If they are spending time searching, it’s looking for gloves and masks, not unmaking malicious websites.

What we take for granted is not one of our most precious commodities: healthcare. Those firms need support to prevent crippling cyber attacks. While they face the swell of infected patients, they need someone watching their back. Make no mistake, cybercriminals have demonstrated that these physicians are working in a cyber combat zone. The virus is faceless, acts with impunity, and does not discriminate when it comes to targets.

Cybercriminals seem to have more in common with the virus than its’ human victims. Armistice or not, it’s time for the cybersecurity community to rally behind the doctors and nurses, and the facilities in which they help patients. We are here to help. For resources and tips on cybersecurity best practices during crisis, please bookmark our blog page and our resources library.

Mark Sangster

Mark Sangster

Vice President and Industry Security Strategist

Mark is a cybersecurity evangelist who has spent significant time researching and speaking to peripheral factors influencing the way that legal firms integrate cybersecurity into their day-to-day operations.