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Prediction check-in: Cyberattacks continue to plague healthcare sector

Like an unimmunized person in a roomful of flu patients, the healthcare sector continues to be at high risk of catching something unpleasant. Cyberattacks and data breaches jeopardize the well-being of healthcare organizations of every size, and too often their exposure is a result of not doing everything they can to immunize themselves against attack.

In our 2017 Data Breach Industry Forecast, we predicted the profitability and uneven defenses of the healthcare sector would cause cybercriminals to continue to focus attacks on healthcare organizations. Numbers from the Identity Theft Resource Center indicate our prediction was right; by mid-year, 151 healthcare breaches have compromised more than 1.9 million records, accounting for nearly 22 percent of all 2017 breaches thus far.

We also predicted:

  • Ransomware would emerge as a top threat for healthcare organizations.
  • Cybercriminals would expand their range of targets within the sector, causing mega breaches to broaden their focus from insurers to other organizations, including hospital networks.
  • Electronic health records and mobile applications would increasingly be targeted.

The year so far

In mid-May the WannaCry ransomware cyberattack became the largest ever, affecting computer systems in more than 150 countries. Ransomware uses malicious code to infect systems, seize control and shut down user access until the affected organization or individual pays a ransom to unlock their systems.

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) was one of the largest victims of WannaCry, which infected medical devices as well as administrative PCs. The impact was widespread, affecting critical operations and causing hospitals to reject patients, doctor’s offices to shut down and emergency rooms to divert patients. Like a patient with a compromised immune system who ignores his doctor’s advice to get an annual flu shot, the NHS allegedly disregarded multiple security warnings to update and protect its systems.

Cybercriminals have also expanded their targets for mega breaches beyond insurers. So far in 2017, the largest known healthcare breach in terms of number of compromised records occurred at a urology practice in Austin, Texas. ITRC statistics show nearly 280,000 records were compromised through the breach of the practice, which has eight locations in the greater Austin area. According to the practice’s official data breach notice, a ransomware attack encrypted data stored on the organization’s servers.

Electronic health records were the target of cyberattacks at numerous healthcare organizations, including a fertility and menopause clinic in New Jersey, where more than 17,000 records were compromised, ITRC reports.

The number, scope and impact of healthcare cyberattacks will only grow. The industry that focuses on taking care of Americans’ physical and mental health should proactively take steps to safeguard its own health by updating security measures and data breach response plans.