Clinical laboratories and pathology groups should be on the alert to this new digital threat; telehealth sessions and video conferencing calls particularly vulnerable to acoustic AI attacks
Banks may be the first to get hit by a new form of hacking because of all the money they hold in deposit accounts, but experts say healthcare providers—including medical laboratories—are comparably lucrative targets because of the value of patient data. The point of this hacking spear is artificial intelligence (AI) with increased capabilities to penetrate digital defenses.
Though the article covers how the AI could conduct cyberattacks on bank information, similar techniques can be employed to gain access to patients’ protected health information (PHI) and clinical laboratory databases as well, putting all healthcare consumers at risk.
The new AI cyberattack employs an acoustic Side Channel Attack (SCA). An SCA is an attack enabled by leakage of information from a physical computer system. The “acoustic” SCA listens to keystrokes through a computer’s microphone to guess a password with 95% accuracy.
“With recent developments in deep learning, the ubiquity of microphones and the rise in online services via personal devices, acoustic side channel attacks present a greater threat to keyboards than ever,” wrote UK study authors Joshua Harrison, MEng, Durham University; Ehsan Toreini, University of Surrey; and Maryam Mehrnezhad, PhD, University of London.
Hackers could be recording keystrokes during video conferencing calls as well, where an accuracy of 93% is achievable, the authors added.
This nefarious technological advance could spell trouble for healthcare security. Using acoustic SCA attacks, busy healthcare facilities, clinical laboratories, and telehealth appointments could all be potentially compromised.
“The ubiquity of keyboard acoustic emanations makes them not only a readily available attack vector, but also prompts victims to underestimate (and therefore not try to hide) their output,” wrote Joshua Harrison, MEng (above), and his team in their IEEE Xplore paper. “For example, when typing a password, people will regularly hide their screen but will do little to obfuscate their keyboard’s sound.” Since computer keyboards and microphones in healthcare settings like hospitals and clinical laboratories are completely ubiquitous, the risk that this AI technology will be used to invade and steal patients’ protected health information is high. (Photo copyright: CNBC.)
Why Do Hackers Target Healthcare?
Ransomware attacks in healthcare are costly and dangerous. According to InstaMed, a healthcare payments and billing company owned by J.P. Morgan, healthcare data breaches increased to 29.5% in 2021 costing over $9 million. And beyond the financial implications, these attacks put sensitive patient data at risk.
Healthcare can be seen as one of the most desirable markets for hackers seeking sensitive information. As InstaMed points out, credit card hacks are usually quickly figured out and stopped. However, “medical records can contain multiple pieces of personally identifiable information. Additionally, breaches that expose this type of data typically take longer to uncover and are harder for an organization to determine in magnitude.”
With AI advancing at such a high rate, healthcare organizations may be unable to adapt older network systems quickly—leaving them vulnerable.
“Legacy devices have been an issue for a while now,” Alexandra Murdoch, medical data analyst at GlobalData PLC, told Medical Device Network, “Usually big medical devices, such as imaging equipment or MRI machines are really expensive and so hospitals do not replace them often. So as a result, we have in the network these old devices that can’t really be updated, and because they can’t be updated, they can’t be protected.”
But telehealth, according to the UK researchers, may also be one way hackers get past safeguards and into critical hospital systems.
“When trained on keystrokes recorded using the video-conferencing software Zoom, an accuracy of 93% was achieved, a new best for the medium. Our results prove the practicality of these side channel attacks via off-the-shelf equipment and algorithms,” the UK researchers wrote in IEEE Xplore.
“[AI] has worrying implications for the medical industry, as more and more appointments go virtual, the implications of deepfakes is a bit concerning if you only interact with a doctor over a Teams or a Zoom call,” David Higgins, Senior Director at information security company CyberArk, told Medical Device Network.
Higgins elaborated on why healthcare is a highly targeted industry for hackers.
“For a credit card record, you are looking at a cost of one to two dollars, but for a medical record, you are talking much more information because the gain for the purposes of social engineering becomes very lucrative. It’s so much easier to launch a ransomware attack, you don’t even need to be a coder, you can just buy ransomware off of the dark web and use it.”
Steps Healthcare Organizations Should Take to Prevent Cyberattacks
Hackers will do whatever they can to get their hands on medical records because stealing them is so lucrative. And this may only be the beginning, Higgins noted.
“I don’t think we are going to see a slowdown in attacks. What we are starting to see is that techniques to make that initial intrusion are becoming more sophisticated and more targeted,” he told Medical Device Network. “Now with things like AI coming into the mix, it’s going to become much harder for the day-to-day individual to spot a malicious email. Generative AI is going to fuel more of that ransomware and sadly it’s going to make it easier for more people to get past that first intrusion stage.”
To combat these attacks patient data needs to be encrypted, devices updated, and medical staff well-trained to spot cyberattacks before they get out of hand. These SCA attacks on bank accounts could be easily transferable to attacks on healthcare organizations’ patient records.
Clinical laboratories, anatomic pathology groups, and other healthcare facilities would be wise to invest in cybersecurity, training for workers, and updated technology. The hackers are going to stay on top of the technology, healthcare leaders need to be one step ahead of them.
Recent intrusions into the hospitals’ IT systems resulted in blocked medical records including medical laboratory data
Healthcare cyberattacks continue to be a threat that bring potentially costly business consequences for clinical laboratories. Just in the past month, two hospital systems had their health information technology (HIT) systems disrupted due to security incidents. In response, the hospitals’ medical laboratories were forced to switch from digital to paper documentation and, in at least one case, the organization reportedly had difficulty accessing electronic laboratory test results.
At Tallahassee Memorial, an “IT security issue” on Feb. 2 resulted in the organization shutting down its IT systems for 13 days, including at its clinical laboratory. The hospital’s computer network went back online on Feb. 15, according to a news release.
At Atlantic General Hospital, according to an AGH news release, IT personnel discovered a ransomware attack on Jan. 29 that affected the hospital’s central computer system. As a result, the walk-in outpatient laboratory was closed until Feb. 14.
These recent cyberattacks underscore the importance for clinical laboratory leaders to have plans and procedures already in place prior to a disruption in access to critical patient data.
Healthcare cyberattacks can be a “complete blindside for a lot of organizations that think they have protections in place because they bought a product or they developed a policy,” said Ben Denkers (above), Chief Innovation Officer at CynergisTek, an Austin, Texas-based cybersecurity company, in an exclusive interview with The Dark Report. Since clinical laboratory test results make up about 80% of a patient’s medical records, disruption of a hospital’s IT network can be life threatening. (Photo copyright: The Dark Report.)
Laboratory Staff Unable to View Digital Diagnostic Results at Tallahassee Memorial
Though the exact nature of the incident at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare has not been divulged, hospital officials did report the incident to law enforcement, which suggests a cyberattack had occurred.
Electronic laboratory test results were among the casualties of the IT difficulties at TMH. “Staff have been unable to access digital patient records and lab results because of the shutdown,” a source told CNN.
Attempts by Dark Daily to reach a medical laboratory manager for comment at TMH were unsuccessful. However, in a news release posted online shortly after the cyberattack, the health system advised staff members on dealing with the IT outages.
“Patients and families may notice the switch to paper documentation during registration, admission, or during their care, as our providers will be using paper forms, prescription pads, handwritten notes, or other similar paper methods where they may usually use an electronic process,” the news release stated. “We apologize for any delays this may create. We practice for situations like this, and we are prepared to provide safe, high-quality care to our patients during computer system downtimes.”
Atlantic General Hospital Reports Ransomware Incident to the FBI
At Atlantic General Hospital, the outpatient walk-in laboratory and outpatient imaging department both temporarily closed because of the ransomware attack.
Staff members throughout the hospital were “forced to manually check patients in and out of appointments and record all other information by hand instead of online,” Ocean City Today reported.
The hospital immediately informed the FBI of the ransomware incident and continues to work with an incident response team to determine whether criminals accessed any sensitive data. It was not clear whether the organization ultimately paid a ransom to unlock its systems.
The hospital’s medical laboratory director did not respond to an email from Dark Daily seeking further comment.
Healthcare Cyberattacks Attempt to Gain Access to Data
Therefore, it is critical that clinical laboratory and hospital staff work with their IT counterparts to verify that technology and processes are in place to protect access to patient data.
In “Labs Must Audit Their Cybersecurity Measures,” Ben Denkers, who at that time was Chief Innovation Officer at CynergisTek, a cybersecurity firm based in Austin, Texas, told The Dark Report, “Testing, validating, and auditing whether measures are working as designed is a change of mentality for a lot of organizations.” (If you don’t subscribe to The Dark Report, try our free trial.)
An IT network attack is an attempt by a cybercriminal to gain unauthorized access to devices that contain and exchange data within an organization. Although this information may be on individual devices or on servers, network attacks are often only possible after a hacker enters a system through an endpoint, such as an individual’s email inbox.
“It’s important to understand that while the network server itself might have ultimately been the target, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was compromised first,” Denkers told The Dark Report. “Phishing is a perfect example of a way an attacker could first gain access to a workstation, and then from there move laterally to a server.”
The final cost of a healthcare cyberattack often exceeds the ransom. Media coverage can lead to an organization’s diminished reputation within the community, and if protected health information (PHI) is accessed by the criminals, a hospital or health system may need to pay for identity theft monitoring for affected patients.
As part of the settlement, Banner Health paid a $1.25 million penalty and will carry out a corrective action plan to protect PHI in the future and resolve any alleged HIPAA violations, according to the HHS Office for Civil Rights.
This hefty penalty is a reminder to pathologists and clinical laboratory managers that—when it comes to cyberattacks—the classic adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is appropriate advice.
Across the nation, healthcare attorneys and others report that ransomware attacks are happening weekly, and that once providers’ data systems are encrypted, they have few options to regain control of their information systems
Ransomware is now the single biggest threat to your hospital, clinical laboratory, and anatomic pathology group’s ability to operate a viable business. Few practice administrators and managers are fully aware of this threat. And yet, many still have not taken even basic steps to protect their organizations from ransomware attacks.
Encryption attacks that shut down a hospital or lab’s information services come without warning, rendering the provider unable to access electronic healthcare records (EHRs), to schedule appointments, or conduct most other normal business activities.
Further, negotiating with the ransomware attackers to obtain a de-encryption key can take weeks. During that time, the hospital or lab cannot access its essential information systems and that disrupts or even stops patient care.
Think this cannot happen to your hospital or lab? Think again.
Just this spring, Scripps Health of San Diego was hit with a ransomware attack. Key information systems were encrypted, and it did not take patients long to notice that they could not email their physicians, access their medical records, or see their test results.
The ransomware attack became the headline story on the San Diego nightly news. Scripps would only admit that many essential information systems had been encrypted and that the organization was using paper to conduct business.
The ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline of Houston, which took place one week after the Scripps Health attack, also became global news. Colonial Pipeline supplies gasoline and similar fuels to 14 states—from Georgia in the South to New York and New Jersey in the North. Dark Daily readers living along the Atlantic Coast personally experienced the shortage of gasoline in their communities because of the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline.
No Ransom Payment, No De-encryption Key
Ransomware is probably the single biggest threat to every hospital and every clinical lab in this country. But few healthcare organizations are taking the essential steps needed to make their information systems more resistant to an encryption attack. Even fewer hospitals and labs have policies or procedures in place that outline how management should react when an encryption attack is first discovered. Yet these attacks are hitting medical providers every week across the US.
Dark Daily surveyed several major law firms that have sizeable healthcare practices. Each firm stated it is contacted weekly by one or more hospitals, labs, and medical clinics that have had their digital systems encrypted, followed by a demand for ransom. The healthcare providers were told by the hackers that if they did not pay the ransom, they would not receive the de-encryption key required to bring their software, apps, and digital systems back into service.
“This is the biggest story in healthcare, yet it gets little attention,” stated Robert L. Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report. “The reason why you don’t read more news stories about ransomware attacks on hospitals and labs is simple. If it becomes known that a hospital or a lab paid ransom to obtain the de-encryption key needed to restore access to its information systems, that encourages other hackers to attack the organization as well, since the hackers know the organization will pay the ransom. They figure if the provider paid the ransom once, the same provider will likely pay it again.”
Payment of Ransom Does Not Guarantee Restoration of Critical Systems
As bad as a ransomware attack on a hospital, lab, or a medical clinic can be—it can get worse. “Experts involved in helping hospitals and labs respond to a ransomware attack say there is no guarantee the de-encryption key provided by the hackers after payment of ransom will restore access to the encrypted systems,” Michel noted. “We hear reports of hospitals and labs that spent more on their efforts to bring the encrypted systems back online and functioning than they did on the actual ransom.”
This is a must-attend webinar—not only for you—but for everyone in your hospital, health system, or clinical laboratory who will be working to prevent ransomware attacks, or who is involved in restoring digital services following such an attack.
Two experts who are contacted each week by multiple hospitals, labs, and medical clinics that were attacked, had their digital systems encrypted, and received a ransom demand for hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars from hackers, will be sharing their knowledge and experience in the legal implications of—and the recovery from—ransomware attacks.
Johnson and Caron will cover best practices designed to provide crucial training and decision-making skills for handling a ransomware attack on hospital and health system clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology practices. These best practices include:
Legal issues triggered by a ransomware attack: What to do when an incident is a breach and when it is not.
Your obligations in response to a ransomware attack: HIPAA privacy and other regulatory rules, contractual arrangements (e.g., reference labs), and crisis communication to patients and other stakeholders.
Responding to and negotiating with ransomware perpetrators—including the expected “etiquette” in dealing with cybercriminals—and collaborating with consultants who are experienced in how to deal with ransomware demands.
And much more.
The roundtable discussion will help you understand how a security incident can occur with or without a breach of protected health information (PHI). Johnson and Caron also will discuss how knowing what to do in each scenario is essential to reducing collateral damage to both patients and your organization, and how to educate your hospital, lab and the broader medical community to address—both proactively and in response—the surging risk of ransomware attacks.
And because so many healthcare administrators, physicians, and pathologists are working remotely, Dark Daily has arranged special group rates for hospitals, practices, and physicians that would like their essential leaders to participate in this important webinar and roundtable discussion on protecting against—and recovering from—ransomware attacks.
Inquire at email@example.com or call 512-264-7103.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
Sophisticated cyberattacks have already hit hospitals and healthcare networks in Oregon, California, New York, Vermont, and other states
Attention medical laboratory managers and pathology group administrators: It’s time to ramp up your cyberdefenses. The FBI, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a joint advisory (AA20-302A) warning US hospitals, clinical laboratories, and other healthcare providers to prepare for impending ransomware attacks, in which cybercriminals use malware, known as ransomware, to encrypt files on victims’ computers and demand payment to restore access.
The joint advisory, titled, “Ransomware Activity Targeting the Healthcare and Public Health Sector,” states, “CISA, FBI, and HHS have credible information of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat to US hospitals and healthcare providers.” It includes technical details about the threat—which uses a type of ransomware known as Ryuk—and suggests best practices for preventing and handling attacks.
In his KrebsOnSecurity blog post, titled, “FBI, DHS, HHS Warn of Imminent, Credible Ransomware Threat Against U.S. Hospitals,” former Washington Post reporter, Brian Krebs, wrote, “On Monday, Oct. 26, KrebsOnSecurity began following up on a tip from a reliable source that an aggressive Russian cybercriminal gang known for deploying ransomware was preparing to disrupt information technology systems at hundreds of hospitals, clinics, and medical care facilities across the United States. Today, officials from the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security hastily assembled a conference call with healthcare industry executives warning about an ‘imminent cybercrime threat to US hospitals and healthcare providers.’”
Krebs went on to reported that the threat is linked to a notorious cybercriminal gang known as UNC1878, which planned to launch the attacks against 400 healthcare facilities.
Clinical Labs, Pathology Groups at Risk Because of the Patient Data They Keep
Hackers initially gain access to organizations’ computer systems through phishing campaigns, in which users receive emails “that contain either links to malicious websites that host the malware or attachments with the malware,” the advisory states. Krebs noted that the attacks are “often unique to each victim, including everything from the Microsoft Windows executable files that get dropped on the infected hosts to the so-called ‘command and control’ servers used to transmit data between and among compromised systems.”
Charles Carmakal, SVP and Chief Technology Officer of cybersecurity firm Mandiant told Reuters, “UNC1878 is one of the most brazen, heartless, and disruptive threat actors I’ve observed over my career,” adding, “Multiple hospitals have already been significantly impacted by Ryuk ransomware and their networks have been taken offline.”
Multiple Healthcare Provider Networks Under Attack
Hospitals in Oregon, California, and New York have already been hit by the attacks, Reuters reported. “We can still watch vitals and getting imaging done, but all results are being communicated via paper only,” a doctor at one facility told Reuters, which reported that “staff could see historic records but not update those files.”
Some of the hospitals that have reportedly experienced cyberattacks include:
Threat intelligence analyst Allan Liska of US cybersecurity firm Recorded Future told Reuters, “This appears to have been a coordinated attack designed to disrupt hospitals specifically all around the country.”
He added, “While multiple ransomware attacks against healthcare providers each week have been commonplace, this is the first time we have seen six hospitals targeted in the same day by the same ransomware actor.”
An earlier ransomware attack in September targeted 250 healthcare facilities operated by Universal Health Services Inc. (UHS). A clinician at one facility reported “a high-anxiety scramble” where “medical staff could not easily see clinical laboratory results, imaging scans, medication lists, and other critical pieces of information doctors rely on to make decisions,” AP reported.
Outside of the US, a similar ransomware attack in October at a hospital in Düsseldorf, Germany, prompted a homicide investigation by German authorities after the death of a patient being transferred to another facility was linked to the attack, the BBC reported.
CISA, FBI, HHS, Advise Against Paying Ransoms
To deal with the ransomware attacks, 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.”
“Without planning, provision, and implementation of continuity principles, organizations may be unable to continue operations,” the advisory states. “Evaluating continuity and capability will help identify continuity gaps. Through identifying and addressing these gaps, organizations can establish a viable continuity program that will help keep them functioning during cyberattacks or other emergencies.”
Dark Daily Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Robert Michel, suggests that clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups should have their cyberdefenses assessed by security experts. “This is particularly true because the technologies and methods used by hackers change rapidly,” he said, “and if their laboratory information systems have not been assessed in the past year, then this proactive assessment could be the best insurance against an expensive ransomware attack a lab can purchase.”