Culture / Security / Contributed

Combating Healthcare Data Attacks During Coronavirus Outbreak

16 Apr 2020 1:00pm, by

Luke Smith
Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but technology and digital marketing topics are his favorite. When he isn't writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live through a major historical event? Wonder no more. What is perhaps the biggest challenge of our lifetime is upon us: the COVID-19 pandemic currently testing the resources and resiliency of our entire world is an unprecedented event. And yet, there are still people out there trying to scam and steal while people and systems are at their most vulnerable.

The fraud happening right now is beyond belief: in the United Kingdom, fraudsters are selling counterfeit hand sanitizer and impersonating health officials. The announcement of the coronavirus stimulus package in the U.S. prompted a huge number of scammers to go out and try to steal stimulus checks through phishing efforts. The World Health Organization (WHO) had to release a press briefing warning people around the world of scammers pretending to be the WHO. Don’t these people know we’re facing a very real crisis that doesn’t discriminate?

Our healthcare systems are already under attack by the virus. Worse still, over the last few years, it’s become clear that hackers now target the healthcare industry thanks to the value of patient data and the rapid pace at which clinics and hospitals must make decisions. Unfortunately, the fight that healthcare facilities are in right now isn’t just for medication, ventilators, and protective equipment: it’s also for privacy and security.

Cyber Attackers See COVID-19 as an Opportunity

There’s a lot of news surrounding healthcare and cybersecurity lately, and just to go with the flow, let’s start with the bad news. Back in March, a hospital in Brno, Czech Republic, was the target of a huge cyberattack. Brno University Hospital is one of the largest testing facilities in the country, and the attack took out its computer system forcing the hospital to scramble to cancel procedures and move patients to other facilities. A week later, the hospital’s computer systems were in recovery, but the time they lost was crucial and it added even more work to doctors’ plates by forcing them to hand-write notes. Authorities suspected a ransomware attack, but they weren’t sure who was behind it.

In a normal state of operations, you might be able to say that at least it only impacted the computer systems. The hackers didn’t try to shut down life-sustaining medical equipment, thereby killing patients. But the rate at which the entire global healthcare system must move to combat this pandemic and minimize the damage means that deaths will indirectly occur as a result of the attack.

Unfortunately, the attack in the Czech Republic isn’t an outlier. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed in March that it also experienced a cyberattack that attempted to slow down its response to the pandemic. Cybersecurity experts within the government noted that it related to the department’s computer networks and worked to monitor the situation and secure further federal networks. The attack stressed the government’s pressing need for cybersecurity experts in every department, which it has failed to attract and retain in the past.

Why These Attacks Could Get Worse

Whenever there’s a significant national or global event, it always comes with an increase in hacking activity. The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Union’s new flagship privacy law, in 2018 created a phishing firestorm that ironically tried and succeeded to collect passwords and credit card information. Even the Olympics was a target in 2018.

From a hacker’s perspective, events like these make perfect targets and covers. Huge numbers of people must work quickly and use an incredible amount of technology. The deadlines are pressing, exhaustion is real, and there can be no errors from anyone within a healthcare organization. It creates the perfect opportunity to exploit any security lapse. Human weakness is on display in more ways than one, and unfortunately, a tiny minority of people only see dollar signs when everyone else is living in fear.

Back in March, leading cybercrime groups promised not to attack healthcare organizations during the pandemic. So why might the attacks grow worse? Until this is over, healthcare organizations have an even greater dependency on their digital infrastructure. The cost of failure is higher. Without the internet, so many aspects of healthcare will collapse. The life-and-death decisions that hackers depend on are now 24/7 and there’s no way around them. Hospitals don’t have time to decide whether to pay the ransom to release their systems from hackers: they have to do it. And gangs will have a hard time forcing every hacker within their control to resist the temptation.

What Every Healthcare Organization Must Do Now

The risk of experiencing cyberattacks is high for everyone, but healthcare organizations have a unique responsibility to protect patient data. First, every healthcare organization must find the time to explain to staff what malicious hackers are using. Everyone with credentials logged into the healthcare network must be aware of social engineering practices: the most common lures right now are related to coronavirus (either file names, email addresses, or domain names). It is imperative to avoid opening emails or clicking links that may be a threat.

The first rule particularly applies to staff who access their email from devices outside the organization’s firewall. Some of the greatest threats any organization faces from hackers occur when someone logs into their employee portal outside of the office from an unsecured Wi-Fi portal or without using a VPN. All employees should receive a briefing describing what to do when accessing work resources outside of workplace computers.

It’s also important for healthcare organizations to understand that the scams are evolving with the pandemic. As Wired reported, there has been an incredible number of fake emails, such as requests from colleagues to help with errands and promoting antibacterial credit cards from banks.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic will be a learning experience in more ways than one. It will test healthcare systems, the economy, the patience of the people, and cybersecurity infrastructure all in one go. But if we can work together to minimize the damage on every front, we may take away lessons that could make us stronger.

Feature photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash.

A newsletter digest of the week’s most important stories & analyses.

View / Add Comments

Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Review our Terms of Use.