(CN) – It’s February 2016. Computers at a Los Angeles hospital are not working. Doctors cannot access electronic medical records. Certain scans cannot be performed. At least one patient has to go to another hospital as a result of the technical issues. Rumors of hackers demanding money begin to surface.
This scenario played out at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center after hackers locked certain computer systems and prevented staff and medical personnel from communicating electronically, requesting money in exchange for restoring access.
Employees ultimately regained access – 10 days later, and only after paying a $17,000 ransom to the perpetrators.
Likely the result of phishing – a scam in which a hacker poses as a trustworthy entity in order to obtain sensitive information through electronic communication – the cyber freeze at Hollywood Presbyterian is an example of a growing trend and threat to institutions and individuals.
Known as ransomware, this type of virus infects and locks a computer, with the hackers commanding money to free the system or network of units. Hackers may also threaten to publish sensitive information online.
Just such an attack happened on Thursday, beginning first as a severe disruption to Britain’s public health system with hackers demanding ransom paid in bitcoins. By Friday, the attack – tens of thousands of them, really – had spread to 72 nations.
Given the critical services performed at hospitals, a doctor warns in the journal The BMJ that hospitals have to prepare for such attacks.
“Hospitals are ideal targets for ransomware companies,” writes Krishna Chinthapalli, a neurology registrar at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. “They have irreplaceable medicolegal records and data for an increasing number of day-to-day functions, from patients’ appointments to viewing imaging.”
Ransomware attacks rose fourfold from 2015 to 2016, with the amount of money paid to hackers reaching $1 billion, according to the FBI. In the United Kingdom, a third of National Health Services trusts have reported a ransomware attack.
Chinthapalli also points out that hospitals store confidential information about their patients, including birth dates, insurance or social security details, personal medical history and addresses. Such data can be sold to other criminals and can damage the reputation of the exposed hospitals, which can also be subject to fines.
To make matters worse, many hospitals use proprietary software that runs on outdated operating systems, which leaves them even more vulnerable to viruses.
“Barts Health NHS Trust’s computers attacked by ransomware in January (2017) ran Windows XP,” Chinthapalli writes. “Released in 2001, it is now obsolete, yet 90 percent of NHS trusts run this version of Windows.”
To avoid these attacks, Chinthapalli encourages hospitals to implement “digital hygiene,” which involves keeping hardware and software as secure as possible. Employees should also steer clear of suspicious emails, and backups must be performed regularly.
Sharing data on these attacks can also help create solutions to stop them, as the same ransomware used against Hollywood Presbyterian was reused in a massive scam that targeted hospitals in the United States and Asia five months later.
“We should be prepared: more hospitals will almost certainly be shut down by ransomware this year,” Chinthapalli writes.