A flurry of ransomware attacks against hospitals in recent weeks suggests that online criminals may have found a new favorite target for cyber-extortion.
The latest to get hit are Methodist Hospital in Henderson, Kentucky, and Southern California’s Chino Valley Medical Center and Desert Valley Hospital, both of which belong to the Prime Healthcare Service chain.
The incident at Methodist Hospital forced it to declare a state of internal emergency earlier this week while administrators tried to restore access to encrypted files and email.
Security blog Krebs on Security, which was the first to report on the attack, quoted the hospital’s information system director Jamie Reid as describing the malware used in the attack as "Locky," a particularly virulent ransomware sample that surfaced earlier this year.
According to Reid, after initially infecting a system, the ransomware spread to the entire internal network and compromised multiple systems. This prompted the hospital to turn off all desktop computers and bring them back up one and a time after ensuring they were infection-free.
Reid did not respond immediately to a Dark Reading request for comment, so it is unclear if the hospital ended up paying the $1,600 ransom demanded by the attackers to unlock the encrypted files. An attorney for Methodist Hospital interviewed by Krebs on Security had said the hospital had not ruled out paying the ransom.
Meanwhile, Fred Ortega, a spokesman for the two California hospitals that were also similarly hit, today claimed the malware did not impact patient safety or compromise health records, staff data, or patient care.
Ortega described the attacks as disrupting servers at both hospitals. But measures were quickly implemented that allowed a majority of operations to continue unhindered, he said in comments to Dark Reading.“The malware was ransomware,” Ortega says. “I can confirm that no ransom has been paid.”
According to Ortega, in-house IT teams were able to quickly implement certain protocols and procedures to contain and mitigate the disruptions. But he did not elaborate on what those measures were. “The hospitals remained operational without impacting patient safety, and at no point was patient or employee data compromised or leaked. As of today, most systems have been brought online,” Ortega says.
The attacks on the three hospitals continue a trend that first grabbed attention in February when Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital said it had paid $17,000 in ransom money to regain access to files that had been locked in a ransomware attack. Since then there have been reports of similar attacks on two hospitals in Germany, one at the Los Angeles County health department, and now the three over this past week.
Expect such attacks to increase, says James Scott, senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Security (ICIT), which recently released a report on the ransomware threat to organizations in critical infrastructure sectors.
“Hospitals are an easy target for many reasons,” Scott says. “Employees typically lack cyber hygiene training and their technology landscape, in most cases, is eerily absent of layered security centric protocols."
Scott predicts that adversaries are going to start using ransomware as a diversionary tactic while they steal electronic health records and other sensitive data from healthcare networks. “The ransom will be secondary to the primary revenue generated by the sale of the data,” Scott says.
Another reason hospitals are being targeted is because threat actors know they simply cannot afford a prolonged disruption adds, Israel Levy, CEO of security vendor BufferZone. “The first attacks on hospitals, which may have been opportunistic rather than targeted, were successful for the attackers, so copycat attacks are now inevitable,” he said.
Regulatory pressures and public concerns have forced the healthcare sector to be more diligent about protecting private medical data in recent years, Levy says. But the same is not always true when it has come to protecting daily operations and common issues like email and Web use.
“Ransomware threat actors seem to be going after that weakness,” Levy said. “They aren't going after personal medical data specifically, but are holding the hospital's operational infrastructure hostage.”
Ron Zalkind, CTO and co-founder at CloudLock, says healthcare organizations are often viewed as soft targets by threat actors. A recent study that CloudLock conducted found that only five percent healthcare organizations on average are concerned with password protection, only 38% are concerned with personally identifiable information, and 30% are concerned with PCI, says Zalkind, who will talk cloud security issues at the upcoming Interop conference. “Similar vulnerabilities exist in other high-risk verticals, such as computer-controlled oil refineries and electrical grids,” he says. “[The] consequences of such attacks to these sectors are just as significant.”
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio