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Several hospitals targeted in new wave of ransomware attacks

Posted October 28, 2020 7:33 p.m. EDT

— Several hospitals across the United States have been targeted in a ransomware attack in what appears to be an escalation and expansion of similar attacks previously launched on other hospitals and medical facilities.

A Trump administration official told CNN that several hospitals have been targeted in the attacks over the past two days, and while it's still early, the official said the incidents may be connected. The federal government is investigating the attacks, the official said.

So far, Universal Health Services, a hospital health care service company based in Pennsylvania; St. Lawrence Health Systems in New York; and the Sky Lakes Medical Center in Oregon all confirmed to CNN that they were targeted over the past few days.

Experts with Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm, said they identified at least three attacks on Tuesday and one on Wednesday, with patients getting diverted to other hospitals as a result.

"We are experiencing the most significant cyber security threat we've ever seen in the United States," Charles Carmakal, SVP and CTO of Mandiant, said. "An Eastern European financially motivated threat actor, is deliberately targeting and disrupting U.S. hospitals, forcing them to divert patients to other healthcare providers. Patients may experience prolonged wait time to receive critical care."

Ransomware is a type of malware, or malicious software, that encrypts a victim's files. The attacker then typically demands a ransom from the victim to restore access to the data upon payment. Users are often shown instructions for how to pay a fee to get the decryption key. The costs can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, often payable to cybercriminals in Bitcoin.

Ransomware and other cyber attacks have seen a sharp rise this year, and hospitals have been particularly vulnerable since the start of the global pandemic. Since July, hospitals in states including New York, Nebraska, Ohio, Missouri and Michigan have all been attacked by some form of ransomware.

The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement from the St. Lawrence Health Systems, the virus has been identified as a new variant of Ryuk ransomware, previously unknown to antivirus software providers and security agencies.

Universal said in a statement that upon learning of the attack, it "disconnected all systems and shut down the Network to prevent further propagation. While the Network was offline, patient care was delivered safely and effectively at our facilities across the country using established back-up processes, including offline documentation methods."

It is not known who carried out the attacks, but overall, the incidents represent a solid expansion of hospital targets in a short period of time who have sought to take advantage of the crush facing hospitals in the wake of the global pandemic.

Ransomware can have devastating effects. Most recently, it crippled the IT network of a German hospital resulting in the death of a woman seeking emergency treatment.

According to Microsoft Corporate Vice President for Customer Security and Trust Tom Burt, Ryuk is a sophisticated crypto-ransomware because it identifies and encrypts network files and disables Windows System Restore to prevent people from being able to recover from the attack without external backups. Ryuk has been attacking organizations, including municipal governments, state courts, hospitals, nursing homes, enterprises and large universities.

According to Burt, Ryuk has been attributed to attacks targeting a contractor for the Department of Defense, the North Carolina city of Durham, an IT provider for 110 nursing homes and a number of hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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