Healthcare News & Insights

Ransomware attacks spread: How to protect key data

If you think your hospital can’t get hit by a ransomware attack, think again. On the heels of a high-profile case in California comes news that several other hospitals have fallen victim to cyberattacks where hackers demand a ransom in exchange for access to critical system information. 

BU008089After Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center paid an estimated $17,000 in ransom to get its electronic health records (EHR) system up and running, experts predicted a rise in ransomware attacks would follow.

And so far, they’re correct. In recent weeks, three American hospitals were targeted for ransom attempts.

In the incidents, hospital computers were infected with a program that scrambled and renamed files, locking them unless they obtain a “key” by paying the hackers.

Quick responses

However, in each case, a swift, targeted response kept the attack from completely paralyzing the facilities.

Methodist Hospital in Kentucky had limited access to its computer systems for five days as the result of a ransomware attack.

According to an article from Krebs On Security, the malware infected the hospital through a spam email stating that the receiver needed to open an attached file for information about invoices.  The virus embedded in the file tried to attack the hospital’s entire network by compromising several of its systems.

However, the facility responded quickly, shutting down all hospital desktop computers until each one could be individually scanned for signs of malware and declaring an “Internal State of Emergency,” relying on previously saved backups to restore access to its data.

The attack did slow down operations at the hospital, though. Staff had limited access to online communications and Web-based services, so they had to rely on paper records. But access was eventually restored – without paying the demanded ransom.

Two Southern California hospitals, Chino Valley Medical Center and Desert Valley Hospital, were both victims of similar ransomware attacks, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

In both cases, technology experts were able to limit the scope of the attacks. After a brief period of disruption, most of the IT systems at each hospital were brought back online as normal. Again, neither facility opted to pay the ransom.

Growing threats outside U.S.

Ransomware attacks are also striking facilities outside of the United States. As described in an article in the Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Memorial Hospital in Canada recently faced a situation of its own involving data ransom. Four of its computers were infected with malicious software that made their files inaccessible.

Upon discovering the problem, the facility immediately isolated the machines and wiped them clean of the infected files. The data they contained was restored through backups without paying the ransom.

Prevention is best protection

From these stories, it’s clear: Ransomware’s gone from being a rare problem to a significant security threat for hospitals. So it’s important for facilities to be proactive before hackers strike.

Besides regularly reminding staff to avoid clicking on attachments sent from unfamiliar email addresses, hospitals should also regularly backup their data.

Whether it’s saved on the cloud or on a separate network server, these copies could make the difference between restoring operations quickly and experiencing weeks of disruption in case a ransomware attack does occur. And if this backup data is securely encrypted for storage, it provides even better protection against outside threats.

The cost of these measures is likely less than any ransom a criminal will try to extort from a hospital, and they send the message that your facility is serious about keeping its data secure.

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