Hacks Against Healthcare Industry on the Rise

Hackers are continuing to use the coronavirus crisis for personal profit. We recently wrote about the increase in malicious sites and phishing campaigns impersonating the World Health Organization and other healthcare companies. But now hackers appear to be turning their sights to the healthcare sector itself. Here are two notable cases from the past few weeks.

WHO Malware Attempt

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization confirmed hackers attempted to steal credentials from their employees. On March 13th a group of hackers launched a malicious site imitating the WHO’s internal email system. Luckily, the attempted attack was caught early and did not succeed in gaining access to the WHO’s systems. However, this is just one of many attempts being made to hack into the WHO. The chief information security officer for the organization Flavio Aggio told Reuters that hacking attempts and impersonations have doubled since the coronavirus outbreak.

Similar attempted hacks against other healthcare organizations are popping up every day. Costin Raiu, head of global research and analysis at Kaspersky, told Reuters that “any information about cures or tests or vaccines relating to coronavirus would be priceless and the priority of any intelligence organization of an affected country.”

Ransomware Attack Against HMR

Unlike the attack on the WHO, a recent ransomware attack was successful in stealing information from a UK-based medical company, Hammersmith Medicines Research (HMR). The company, which performs clinical trials of tests and vaccines, discovered an attack in progress on March 14th. While they were successful of restoring their systems, ransomware group called Maze took responsibility. On March 21st, Maze dumped the medical information of thousands of previous patients and threatened to release more documents unless HMR paid a ransom. HMR has not disclosed how the attack occurred, but have stated that they will not pay the ransom.

Four days after the initial attack, Maze released a statement saying they would not target medical organization during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, this did not stop them from publicizing the stolen medical information a week later. After the attack gained publicity, Maze changed their tune. The group removed all of the stolen files from their website, but blamed the healthcare industry for their lack of security procedures: “We want to show that the system is unreliable. The cyber security is weak. The people who should care about the security of information are unreliable. We want to show that nobody cares about the users,” Maze said.

Conclusion

 Times of crisis and confusion are a hacker’s delight. The staggering increase of hacks against the healthcare industry only help prove that.  The key to mitigating these threats is to ensure that security configurations are set to industry best practices, continuously scan your networks, lock down or close open ports, secure or (preferably) remove Remote Desktop Protocol, and require Multi-Factor authentication for any remote access.  And certainly, make sure you are testing your incidence response plan.

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Coronavirus and the Right to Privacy

 The coronavirus has unquestionably changed the way we live. It has also forced us into strange and, until just a few weeks ago, unthinkable ethical dilemmas. To visit loved ones is worth genuine ethical reflection. Modern nations, especially in the West, are built on an ethics of individual freedoms and the right to privacy. However, the current global health crisis is forcing us to rethink just how fundamental those ethics should be. While we already feel this with regards to the freedom of movement, we are just beginning to contemplate how the coronavirus can and should effect our right to privacy.

Contact Tracing and Enforced Quarantine

In order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, experts emphasize the importance of tracking every contact infected patients have had with others. Countries such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have all taken aggressive measure trace all potential contact infected people have had. These measures are widely considered to be a large reason why these countries have been successful in lowering the rate of transmission. However, the aggressive measures taken have come at the cost of individual privacies.

Taiwan and Singapore, for example, regularly post detailed information about everyone who test positive, including where they live and work, what train stations they have used, and what bars and restaurants they frequent. South Korea now has an app that allows users to track the exactly movement of those infected.

Countries are also using location data to enforce quarantine for those infected. Israel, for example, is now using data collection techniques previously used for counterterrorism efforts to identify anyone potentially exposed to the virus. The government uses this information to send text messages to those exposed ordering them to quarantine.

European and the U.S. Response

As the coronavirus spreads to Europe and the U.S., lawmakers are exploring the use of similar techniques. Italy now uses location data to monitor whether people are obeying quarantine orders. In the U.S., the White House is reportedly in conversations with tech companies to use anonymized location data to track the spread of the virus. HIPPA regulations are being waived to allow doctors and mental health providers to more freely use telecommunication to speak with patients. Companies in Italy, Austria, and Germany have also announced that they will provide location data to governments.

However, with privacy regulations such as the GDPR, it is unclear how aggressively European countries will be able to use personal information. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) released a statement urging governments to continue to abide by privacy regulations in place. At the same time, however, the EDPB conceded that countries may suspend such regulations “when processing is necessary for reasons of substantial public interest in the area of public health.”

Consequences

Relaxing the right to privacy has garnered mixed responses by government officials and security experts. Many have pointed out that while the measures taken are extreme, personal information such as location data is highly effective in limiting the spread of the coronavirus. “We are stretched very thin in most states,” said the director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, “so this kind of technology can help every state to prioritize, given their limited resources, which communities, which areas, need more aggressive tracking and testing.”

Others are concerned how this could endanger those whose information is made public. In South Korea, some have used information released by the government to identify infected individuals and attack them online. This has led officials to question how the government uses this information, worrying it will discourage others from getting tested for fear of being publicly exposed.

While nearly all countries have explained suspending the right to privacy is a temporary measure for the benefit of the public health, many worry it will have a permanent effect on how governments and countries view privacy concerns. After 9/11, for example, the U.S. used highly invasive surveillance measures that have since become common place among law enforcement agencies. According to the New York Times, privacy experts worry something similar could happen after the current crisis.

What restrictions we, as a society, can tolerate, and what effect this will have after the current crisis remains an open question. However, it may also involve a false choice.  There are technologies to both assist contract tracing and preserve anonymity.  Privacy by Design does not have to be put on pause as we develop these tools.  In fact, if we want to encourage wide adoption, it might be required.

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Privacy in the Age of Coronavirus

One can argue about the steps taken so far with regards to the coronavirus, but perhaps no other report has had an impact on what the United States is now doing to curb the spread of the virus than the report published on March 16 by the UK’s Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team.  In plain, stark language, the report warns of the dangers of doing nothing and emphasizes that if we want to minimize mortality rate “combining all four interventions (social distancing of the entire population, case isolation, household quarantine and school and university closure) is predicted to have the largest impact.”

Key to this is case isolation and household quarantine, both of which are containment measures.  Containment requires, at minimum identification (you have to know who is symptomatic to make sure they are isolated and you have to know who the symptomatic were in contact with to make sure they are quarantined) and communication (you have to know whether you’ve been in contact with someone if you are to self-quarantine).

The technologies exist to help both identification and communication, but at a potential cost to privacy. There’s the impact on privacy to the symptomatic individual, those with whom they have been in contact, and even locations (towns, neighborhoods, stores) through which the person traveled.  These risks are not insubstantial. In the case of individuals, it could result in stigmatization, harassment, and even physical threats (if not harm); in the case of locations, it could result in severe economic losses and stigmatization itself.  The key to leverage technology with containment is to identify potential privacy risks and embed privacy practices into the technology to minimize those risks.

The MIT Media Lab is doing just this.  Yesterday, they released an open-source application called Private Kit: Safe Paths which uses your phone to track your location data and uses that to trace where symptomatic individuals have been and share that information to others so that they can determine whether they may have been in contact with those individuals.  And, the app does it in a privacy-preserving way.  The app works like this: it first logs your phone’s location data, but keeps it on your phone so that you retain possession of it.  If you are diagnosed, you have the choice to consent to sharing your location data with health officials who can make it public.  Ultimately, the app will share symptomatic location data with others without the middleman of a health authority so that one can see if they have been in recent contact with anyone who has been symptomatic.  It’s a powerful tool that has the potential to have a material impact on containment efforts.

Of particular interest, is the whitepaper MIT developed on this application that outlines the various privacy risks pertaining to containment and how Private Kit addresses them.  The report provides an instruction lesson to any organization conduct privacy risk assessments or evaluating privacy controls relative to GDPR or CCPA regulations or to better serve the needs of its constituents.

When confronted with the enormity of something like the coronavirus, its both critical and refreshing to know that we don’t have to throw out our rights to deal with it.  After all, in battling something like this virus, we are not only defending our selves, we are preserving the very freedoms that define who we are.

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