The Conundrum of Healthcare Cybersecurity Amidst COVID-19


by Prachi and Astutya Prakhar 4 June 2020

As COVID-19 pandemic continues to damage world health, political, economical and social systems, there’s one more imperceptible threat emerging in the digital space the threat of cyberattacks which are preying on our increased dependency on digital tools. Cybersecurity always has been one of the most salient pillars in digital transfiguration, but its importance is intensified considerably in COVID-19 epidemic. As health care organizations are battling with this pandemic, they are also facing intensified cybersecurity threats from cybercriminals looking to take advantage of the crisis caused by the outbreak.

Security firms, Big Tech giants and Intelligence agencies all are alarming over the increasing threat from cybercriminals in the rise of the global coronavirus pandemic – with opportunistic phishing threats, ransomware attacks and other malevolent activities, all creating havoc among healthcare organizations worldwide. One of the main grounds for this increased threat to the supply chain and the healthcare sector is a rise in the number of people directed to work from home due to this pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has observed cyberattacks gone twice since the outbreak of the pandemic. A few days back, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the COVID-19 statistics site both being the focal target of cyberattackers with an aim to disrupt information flow.

Cybercriminals launched a ransomware attack on London-based Contract Research Organization (CRO) Hammersmith Medicines Research (HMR) which was working on the coronavirus ventures with the UK government. HMR was somehow able to repulse the attack and reinstate its systems without paying any ransom. However, the clinical director of the organization’s Malcolm Boyce affirmed that confidential documents of over 2,200 patients, including medical questionnaires and copies of passports, were leaked online. Prior this month, a cyberattack on the Brno University hospital on the Czech Republic which is one of the biggest coronavirus testing facilities in the Czech forced them to take its entire IT system offline, cancel surgeries and move patients to other hospitals. Cyber incidents mainly targeting the healthcare sector as confirmed in many countries like India, Spain, Thailand, United States and France. Medical records are vital on the dark web as they consist personally identifiable details, including a patient’s full name, financial details, patient’s address, social security number and many more. 

Cybersecurity software provider confirmed that the cybercriminals are making the crisis even worse by selling COVID-19 test kits, Chloroquine and respirators for hefty prices. The firm discovered underground vendors offering surgical masks and N95 respirators for a 300% to 400% markup, and others selling Azithromycin and Chloroquine for $500 to $1,000, which for a 30day, 250 mg. bottle would generally cost between $111 and $165. 

The way COVID-19 highlights many cybersecurity issues which invite a reconsideration of cybersecurity policies and strategies. A prominent effort was taken by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission to reassess cybersecurity in the US. The commission gave its conjecture that – despite twenty years of policy concerns and actions, public and private sector cybersecurity in the US remains scant.

In response to the news of cyberattacks, Microsoft has started to provide its AccountGuard threat notification service at free of cost to healthcare organizations, humanitarian groups and human rights. From last few weeks, Google alone started to block approx 18 million COVID-19 malware delivery and phishing emails every day. Several thousand volunteers from the group known as the Cyber Threat Coalition are tracking online cybercriminal activity, especially the increase in the new health-related domains that appear ripe for malicious activity. Another, group Cyber Volunteers 19, was set up by Daniel Card and Lisa Forte in the United Kingdom. The main aim of Cyber Volunteer 19 group is to help and enable a volunteer matchmaking that provides healthcare services access to a pool of cybersecurity experts.

The increasing cybersecurity threats to healthcare organizations can be deduced significantly by taking protective measures. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to raise awareness among the medical professionals and employees of the healthcare organizations about cybersecurity to avoid breaches of data due to human error. Using public Wi-Fi and unprotected networks, even if being a common practice but it is a direct threat to cybersecurity. To secure their devices from all kind of cyberattacks, all experts of the healthcare organizations must only use protected networks. Private information of patients is the responsibility of hospitals. So, they need to limit the number of people who can access sensitive data because it will reduce the chances of a data breach by an employee. Medical professionals and doctors share files and data, to discuss medical cases. They many time make mistakes by sharing it through open-ended applications, which makes them vulnerable to cyber theft. It is important to share only essential data, through encrypted tools and software. All the devices which are in use in the healthcare industry must be secured with the latest version of antivirus and antimalware software.

In a situation like this where the cases of coronavirus are confirmed in more than 180 countries – dependency on digital communication is proliferated and this heightened dependency on digital infrastructure increases the cost of failures. In the course of COVID-19, hospitals and healthcare providers have clearly demonstrated the crucial importance to our lives and economy. The increasing number of cyberattacks against healthcare organizations is alarming. The reality is that healthcare organizations have become hacker’s targets. Medical care has become more networked and interlinked via computer and devices, during this pandemic and hospitals are susceptible to cyberattacks because of the large data, flows many vulnerable points throughout their numerous systems. In a crisis situation, people tend to make mistakes, they would not have made otherwise. It is important, now more than ever that all hospitals and healthcare organizations must take effective measures to secure their systems from cyberattacks. To improve cybersecurity in healthcare, organizations require to hire the cyber professionals who can not only collect and manage data, but protect it as well from cyberattacks. Whereas, the Cyber Threat Intelligence groups, the government, law enforcement and other groups need to cooperate with the healthcare industry and take effective measure to prevent cyberattacks on healthcare providers.