Recent attacks illustrate how costly a security breach can be and why clinical laboratories and pathology groups must work to protect their information systems from ransomware attacks
Recent ransomware attacks on Scripps Health, Universal Health Services, and Utah Pathology Services clearly illuminate the vulnerabilities within the healthcare industry to being targeted. These attacks left patients’ protected health information (PHI) exposed and the healthcare organizations open to federal scrutiny and possibly fines or other punitive actions.
Therefore, it is crucial clinical laboratories and pathology groups have a cybersecurity strategy in place for dealing with ransomware attacks. Running security drills may need to be part of that strategy. Managers and employees should undergo specific training and vendors must be vetted carefully. Without such a strategy, the question is not if an attack will happen, but rather when an attack will succeed.
Ransomware Attackers are Getting Better
“Ransomware is increasing in sophistication; it’s increasing in prevalence. The purveyors of ransomware are generally reinvesting the fees that they collect from the entities they extort to acquire more capabilities,” Beau Woods, Senior Advisor at the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), told The San Diego Tribune.
“They’re getting better, they’re getting more frequent, particularly during the pandemic where we’ve opened up more connectivity to allow more remote work,” he added.
The Scripps Health attack is notable for several reasons, with one being the length of the outage it caused. The attack was first detected on May 1 of this year. It took four weeks before Scripps could restore most of its network and get its Epic EHR back online, Health IT Security reported.
However, the ransomware attack on Universal Health Services (NYSE:UHS) may be the biggest attack so far. It took place on September 27, 2020, and caused a three-week outage. The company told The San Diego Tribune the incident had a $67 million impact on operations.
According to HIPAA Journal, “The phone system was taken out of action, and without access to computers and electronic health records, employees had to resort to pen and paper to record patient information. In the early hours after the attack occurred, the health system diverted ambulances to alternative facilities and some elective procedures were either postponed or diverted to competitors. Patients reported delays receiving test results while UHS recovered from the attack.”
At Utah Pathology Services, an employee e-mail hack resulted in the potential exposure of patient data. The malicious actors attempted to divert funds intended for a physician but failed to do so. However, the information of 112,000 patients was accessible to the hacker during the attempt.
“The compromised data varied by patient but could include names, contact information, insurance details such as ID and group numbers, medical and health information like internal records numbers and clinical and diagnostic information, and some Social Security numbers,” Health IT Security reported.
Value of Patient Data on the Dark Web is Increasing
In the case of the Utah Pathology Services attack, the hackers were specifically after money. However, according to cybersecurity company SecureLink, patient records are “the new prize” for hackers. Healthcare data carries a value of its own on the digital black market. In fact, healthcare data is more valuable than credit card or banking data.
“Healthcare data is valuable on the black market because it often contains all of an individual’s personally identifiable information, as opposed to a single marker that may be found in a financial breach,” SecureLink wrote in a blog post.
In “Here’s How Much Your Personal Information Is Selling for on the Dark Web,” credit rating agency Experian estimated a stolen medical record could sell for between $1 and $1,000, while a Social Security number alone is worth about a dollar.
A 2018 Trustwave Global Security Report estimated that a healthcare record is worth about $250. Trustwave, however, estimated the value of a banking record at less than $5. That strongly suggests health records are increasing in value.
And even after a healthcare entity has regained control of its IT infrastructure, the hacker still has possession of the stolen patient information. It may take weeks or years for the hacker to sell that information, meaning the breach represents a continuing threat to the healthcare organization and its patients.
Clinical Laboratories Must Prepare for an Attack
Simply understanding the threat is not enough. Clinical laboratory and pathology group managers must have robust plans in place for both protecting patient information and for dealing with a security breach should one occur.
According to a Health IT Security report, “The ransomware attack that struck all 400 UHS care sites and caused three weeks of EHR downtime in September, cost the health system $67 million in recovery costs and lost revenue.”
The report added, “Security researchers have long-recommended the need for providers to shift into a proactive security model, like zero trust. Recent reports show successful cyberattacks on healthcare providers doubled in the last year, with at least 560 providers falling victim to ransomware.”
In “Three Federal Agencies Warn Healthcare Providers of Pending Ransomware Attacks; Clinical Laboratories Advised to Assess Their Cyberdefenses,” Dark Daily reported on an FBI, federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) joint advisory (AA20-302A) that warned US hospitals, clinical laboratories, and other healthcare providers to prepare for impending ransomware attacks in 2020.
To deal with the ransomware attacks, we wrote, “CISA, FBI, and HHS advise against paying ransoms. ‘Payment does not guarantee files will be recovered,’ the advisory states. ‘It may also embolden adversaries to target additional organizations, encourage other criminal actors to engage in the distribution of ransomware, and/or fund illicit activities.’ The federal agencies advise organizations to take preventive measures and adopt plans for coping with attacks.
“The advisory suggests:
- Training programs for employees, including raising awareness about ransomware and phishing scams. Organizations should ‘ensure that employees know who to contact when they see suspicious activity or when they believe they have been a victim of a cyberattack.’
- Regular backups of data and software. These should be ‘maintained offline or in separated networks as many ransomware variants attempt to find and delete any accessible backups.’ Personnel should also test the backups.
- Continuity plans in case information systems are not accessible. For example, organizations should maintain ‘hard copies of digital information that would be required for critical patient healthcare.’”
Given the enormous amounts of money hackers can earn from selling protected health information on the Dark Web, it is a near certainty these attacks will continue. Clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology group managers would be well advised to plan for the inevitability that their health system will be targeted.