When Hackers Endanger the Lives of Patients; How to Improve Healthcare Cybersecurity

Healthcare Cybersecurity

When cybercriminals target a hospital, patients pay for the cost of the incident.

For medical facilities that lack security solutions, a single attack could mean postponed surgeries, major errors in treatment, the leak of confidential medical records, or compromised medical devices.

In the worst possible scenario, hacking incidents can even lead to a patient’s death.

In 2019, a Medical Center in Alabama suffered a ransomware attack. When Teiranni Kidd came for her scheduled labor induction, she was unaware that the IT systems were down, preventing healthcare workers from gathering necessary fetal tracing data.

Born with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck, the baby suffered brain damage and died nine months following the birth.

This case is considered the first death that is directly linked to a ransomware case.

What are some of the major hacking concerns of the medical field today, and how can we strengthen healthcare cybersecurity?

Ransomware Attacks On Hospitals

According to Statista, healthcare was the most targeted sector by ransomware in 2022.

Malware can easily encrypt valuable electronic files so that criminals can demand ransom in exchange for the encryption key — with the promise not to expose confidential data.

Not being able to access medical files on patients can postpone critical medical care or delay surgeries.

The malware which started the surge of ransomware incidents worldwide is known as WannaCry. This strain of malware affected hospitals in the UK to the point where the country had to declare a state of emergency.

Ransomware cases that followed involved new types of this malware, many of which are capable of locking complete infrastructures and stealing sensitive data.

Prevention of Ransomware in Healthcare

To protect systems against ransomware, ensure that:

  • All software is updated to its latest (safest) version to prevent hackers from exploiting patchable vulnerabilities
  • Staff have passed phishing awareness training
  • Sensitive data is backed up so that medical professionals can access it even if the files or parts of the infrastructure get encrypted

Data Breaches Expose Sensitive Files of Millions

The main reason that threat actors frequently target healthcare institutions and services is that they hold a lot of sensitive data concerning their patients.

Cybercriminals are after Social Security numbers, addresses, ID information, and dates of birth.

The healthcare system also holds electronic medical records. When they get leaked, or the criminal sells them online, confidential data such as that of terminated pregnancies or drug use can be used against patients.

Following the Medibank data breach that exposed the sensitive information of 9.5 million clients on the dark web, users reported that they had been targeted with scam phone calls and messages.

Both current and former users of Australia’s largest insurance provider were affected by the breach.

In April 2023, the largest data breach of the year compromised the data of 3,037,303 patients. The entity that suffered the breach is known as NationsBenefits Holdings.

Medibank and NationsBenefits Holdings were the data breach cases that started with ransomware.

Preventing Data Breaches in Hospitals

Data breaches are often the result of attacks such as ransomware and phishing. To prevent medical facilities from data breaches, it’s important to protect companies against such attacks.

Another important element of data theft prevention is proper data management. Data governance means having an automated solution that can keep track of all sensitive files.

Companies pair data management with AI-based cybersecurity solutions that can detect if a possibly malicious insider is accessing the documents — based on the regular activity within your system.

Also, do frequent backups of sensitive files. And test if they can be recovered in the case of a cyberattack. If they get lost, locked with ransomware, or deleted, you should have a way to regain important files.

The Hacking of Medical Devices

Most of the cyber incidents that are headlining the news depict ransomware or data breaches. However, hospitals have another major vulnerability that can endanger the lives of patients — devices that lack proper security.

Hacking the Internet Of Things (IoT) devices within a hospital is not yet widely discussed. But it’s a matter of time before they start endangering the lives of people in hospital care or be the reason behind a major hacking incident.

Namely, cybersecurity experts believe that there isn’t a medical device without critical flaws. All are vulnerable to hacking incidents.

Most medical devices have small IoT components necessary for communicating with other devices. Some of the apparatuses that can get hacked include wireless monitors, insulin pumps, pacemakers, and drug infusion pumps.

If bad actors gain control over such devices, a hospital can administer an incorrect dose of medication or need to postpone the treatment of a patient.

Nip IoT Hacking in the Bud

How can we better protect medical equipment against IoT hacking?

The key challenge with IoT device protection is the high number of them — which can hinder their visibility.

Map all of the IoT-based devices available. Then, do regular risk assessments to uncover poorly protected devices and patch their vulnerabilities.

Healthcare Cybersecurity Has Critical Gaps

When a data breach affects a business or government institution, the focus seems to be on the financial consequences of the attack.

The healthcare industry is a reminder that the cost of cyber threats goes beyond financial repercussions. In the hospital environment, when critical care is delayed or leads to mistakes, the hacking can lead to the death of patients.

Major cases that have affected millions of patients worldwide are also a reminder that there are still major flaws in the security within the medical industry.

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