What Does this New Wave of Hackers Mean for Hospitals?

Jim Fitzgibbon

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If you’re worried about cybersecurity in your hospital, you should be. There have been a series of cyberattacks on hospitals this year, and there are plenty of signs these types of encroachments are increasing. What’s happening out there? What does this new wave of hackers mean to U.S. hospitals? What can you do right now to protect your networks?

The State of Hospital IT Security

Hospitals are facing an increasing number of cyberattacks this year. All of this started during the COVID pandemic, as many facilities set up makeshift locations for testing and vaccinations. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, one million Americans were affected each month in 2020 by data breaches at healthcare organizations. At the same time, many hospitals cut back on cybersecurity teams as their revenues dropped from canceling elective procedures.

All of this created a ripe environment for hackers targeting networks, personal devices, and data storage. They also are targeting third-party vendors, of which there are dozens in a typical healthcare network. The typical attack comes in the form of ransomware—which has shut down at least 235 hospitals and clinical outpatient facilities since 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that infiltrates a computer network and locks down the servers. You cannot access any data from the system until the hacker is paid a ransom, usually in electronic currency or bitcoin. Once the ransom is paid, the hacker releases the encryption key to unlock the system. For hospitals, it’s a brutal lesson in the importance of IT security upgrades.

Many of these attacks are conducted by Eastern European cybercriminals, many of whom have ties to foreign governments. One of these groups is called Ryuk, whom The Wall Street Journal calls “the most prolific ransomware gang in the world, accounting for one-third of the 203 million U.S. ransomware attacks in 2020.” This group is estimated to have collected at least $100 million in ransom money last year.

What Can Hospitals Do to Protect Their IT Networks?

Hospitals often have lax security controls, according to The Wall Street Journal. But it’s not the hospital at fault; many times, it’s the medical device maker who needs to up their cyber defenses. That’s because these devices often capture patient data and send it through the cloud to a remote doctor. Infusion pumps, pacemakers, and biopsy imaging tables operate in this way now. But if these devices lack a strong security infrastructure, it’s possible for hackers to use this backdoor to reach inside a hospital network and shut it down.

The Wall Street Journal says, “Hospitals…are growing more aggressive with technology suppliers amid pressure to better defend against incursions that could threaten patients and cause costly disruptions.”

For most hospitals, shoring up their IT security teams is the first step toward shutting these backdoors.