Cyber and the Healthcare Industry

By UK Security Expo team

The Healthcare industry has featured in the top 5 industries attacked by cyber criminals for a number of years now.  The WannaCry ransomware attack earlier this year that affected many health trusts across England and Scotland brought the health impact of the cyber threat to the forefront of media and political debate in the run up to the 2017 General Election. So why would anyone want to attack healthcare and what are the threats?

2016 was a very difficult year for healthcare when it came to cyber-attacks and developing cyber threats.  According to the TrapX Security 2016 Healthcare Cyber Breach Research report, “the nature of the threat continues to diversify into a greater variety of complex attacks promoted by sophisticated and persistent human attackers. These attacks against hospitals and medical organisations are still driven by the lucrative economic rewards for organised crime. Medical records are among the most complete set of records available and, hence, are in demand for a variety of reasons.”

In October 2016, Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General warned that the NHS was at risk of cyber-attacks, saying that “hacking is “no longer the stuff of spy thrillers and action movies” but a clear and present threat and large quantities of sensitive data held by the NHS and the Government is being targeted by hackers.”

In January 2017 Barts Health Trust warn its staff that the trust’s four hospitals in East London: The Royal London, St Bartholomew’s, Whipps Cross and Newham were experiencing a “ransomware virus attack.”  This came after similar attacks on Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Foundation trust in the previous October.

A report on the Deep Web black market for electronic health records (EHRs) by researchers affiliated with the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology pointed out that “healthcare systems are relentlessly and incessantly attacked by different types of attackers.”

One of the reasons that medical networks remain vulnerable is that many legacy systems and devices lack the ability to be updated and patched, yet are connected to networks.  Or the updating of systems, often via patches provided free from operating system vendors, is not seen as a priority by senior managers and something “IT are responsible for”. It therefore doesn’t matter if the newer devices are completely up to date as the organisation’s “Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)” becomes vulnerable to its weakest link.

Medical records, especially but not exclusively in the USA, by dint of their comprehensive nature, sell for hundreds of dollars on the Dark Web and there is no shortage of them.  According to the IB Times last year, a hacker claimed to have broken into multiple healthcare databases across America and listed a fresh trove of 9.2m records on a Dark Web based marketplace for 750 bitcoin (£368,000). The vendor, using the pseudonym ‘The Dark Overlord’, claims the plaintext 2GB database includes names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, date of births and Social Security Numbers (SSNs) belonging to 9,278,352 Americans.

However, for those compromised, many don’t realise that their records can be sold repeatedly by the criminal networks operating in the Dark Web and that this could cause long term problems.  Information that is contained in medical records can be used for many different types of identity fraud and phishing attacks and because of its comprehensive nature, the threat from these can persist for many years.

In the UK, the attack vector seems to be different to the USA and attacks are mainly via ransomware. Trying to extort money from vulnerable hospital trusts rather than individuals.   NHS hospital trusts in England reported 55 cyber-attacks in 2016, according to data obtained by the BBC from NHS Digital, who oversees cyber security.

The WannaCry attack blew this statistic away and put a spotlight on cyber security across healthcare in the UK. As the attack unfolded, Eugene Kaspersky from Kaspersky Labs said that it, “looks like a cyberattack of a criminal nature but with a global impact that’s very close to terrorism.”  Kaspersky continue to help Europol to try and track the perpetrators.

Until now, NHS Digital reported a steady increase in reporting but were quick to point out that this increase didn’t necessarily mean an increased number of attacks, just better awareness and they didn’t believe any patient records had been compromised.  Oliver Farnan, from the Oxford Cyber Security Centre, said ransomware attacks had become more common and ‘The risk is going to increase’; how right he has been.

Advising on the threat to the NHS in the UK falls to CareCERT who have been analysing threat intelligence and broadcasting relevant, focused advisories to health and care organisations since October 2015, with partners in industry and using links across the public sector, including the NCSC, CERT-UKCESG and CPNI.

With this emerging threat potentially affecting all our health, what better place to gain a clearer understanding of how to counter it, than at the UK Security Expo at the end of November, 29-30, 2017. Free visitor passes are available at

Publication date: September 2017