Cyber-attack in the time of COVID-19

Hospital Insights Asia talks to Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic about cyber-attack in healthcare from the eyes of someone who has seen and experienced it.

At 5 in the morning of 13 March, the Brno University Hospital ordered everyone to turn off their computers. Three hours later, they cancelled all scheduled surgeries, sent several patients home, and transferred patients to other hospitals. Employees were met with an order not to turn any of the computers on.

Brno University Hospital is the second-biggest hospital in the Czech Republic. Responsible for running COVID-19 tests, the hospital has had a vital role to play in the nation’s outbreak response.

The attack at Brno was just one of several other data breaches in the healthcare industry during the pandemic. Similar incidents have been reported in the healthcare sectors of other countries, like Thailand, France, Spain, and the United States. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has even found itself target of several phishing attacks while it’s occupied with the outbreak.

Just a few days back, University Hospital Düsseldorf in Germany experienced a similar attack, which delayed the treatment of a patient, leading to the first ransomware-related death. This increasing number of cyber breaches is largely due to the fact that hackers see the healthcare industry as an area of interest to make money from, Pavel Žára, the spokesperson for Brno University Hospital, tells Hospital Insights Asia.

Hospitals as new targets

Cybercriminals exploit the chaotic situation brought by COVID-19 to hack into computer systems and steal passwords and data.

Ransomware, a malware planted illegally on computer systems, allows hackers to disable hospital operations and access confidential data. They then use this as bait to extort money from the hospital in exchange for the restoration of the system and the protection of data. Extortionists know how it’s crucial for hospitals today to get access to patient records and computer systems, hence, know they have a higher chance to make their victims pay.

In recent months, a new Kwampirs malware was also found targeting supply chains around the world. As everyone panics about the shortage of personal protective equipment to deal with the infection, hackers saw an opportunity to control the supplies and make money.

All things digital come with risks

Everyone has suddenly become dependent on digital tools for information, socialisation, education, and even shopping. Hospitals are at their busiest. People are anxious and stressed.

People from around the world want to get updated information about the pandemic. Hackers know this. In fact, ninety-eight percent of cyberattacks in the past few months has used social engineering methods. This underscores that cybercriminals are using human weaknesses to succeed in their illicit activities.

Online users, who are thirsty for updates and are filled with anxiety, are tricked into downloading a map that displays COVID-19 statistics. What they don’t know is that the map is only a façade for a concealed dangerous malware allowing hackers to access their passwords.

But it doesn’t stop here. Cybercriminals go as far as attacking electricity and water supplies in several countries, which impact the pandemic response as these are critical infrastructure even for the healthcare sector.

Thirst for data

Data is crucial to healthcare. Patients’ data should unquestionably remain confidential and protected. Even Hippocrates believes so. After all, patients reveal their most personal and private information to clinicians.

The cyberattack at Brno University Hospital affected “about 50 to 80 percent of data, especially the administrative part,” says Žára. While the system has been successfully restored after three weeks, it paused the hospital’s operations, consequently impacting the care provided to patients and the hospital’s contribution to the country in pandemic management.

Brno University Hospital has cybersecurity measures in place even before the pandemic and the attack happened. Primarily, its cyber defences are financed from the hospital’s information technology budget allocations and funds from the Ministry for Regional Development of the Czech Republic’s Integrated Regional Operational Program (IROP).

Yet, the scale of the cyber breach is that huge that even a hospital with cyber defences was caught off-guard. Today, Brno University Hospital, Žára highlights, is further strengthening its cybersecurity measures and allocating more budget for this.

Experts, too, believe that the key to fortifying hospitals’ cyber defences is awareness. Brno University Hospital acknowledges that the attack can happen again to the hospital and other hospitals. Hence, being aware of the methods that hackers often use in cyber breach is necessary to layout plans on how to counter their methods. Practising good cyber hygiene for nurses, doctors, administrative staff, and management is also helpful.

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