Thursday, December 7 2023

A new EU report sounds the alarm on cyber threats aimed at the health sector. The first-of-its-kind report was published last week by ENISA, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity. It drew on 215 cyber incidents observed in EU member states, Norway, Switzerland, and the U.K. between January 2021 and March 2023. The data does not represent all actual cyber incidents, only those reported by countries.

The report highlighted the rise of ransomware as a major threat to the health sector, which made up 54% of all reported health sector cyber threats. Of the 116 incidents reported, at least 43% involved data theft or breaches. This spelled chaos for patients as services were disrupted. The report recounts an instance where a hospital needed to close its emergency department, reschedule chemotherapy treatments, and suspend surgeries because of a ransomware attack. Disruption of hospital services made up 22% of the impacts of the cyber incidents. Breach or theft of data and disruption of non-healthcare services topped that list at 43% and 25%, respectively. Concerningly, a mere 27% of health sector organizations have a dedicated ransomware defense program.

Indeed, ransomware incidents increased from 2021 to 2022, with the upward trend continuing into 2023. This is consistent with the wave of ransomware attacks impacting other sectors, as featured in a 2022 ENISA Threat Landscape Report. In contrast, total reported cyber incidents decreased slightly from 91 in 2021 to 85 in 2022. Q1 2023 has seen 40 incidents, a possible increase. This is mostly attributable to denial-of-service attacks targeting hospitals in the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden. These attacks were a result of pro-Russian “hacktivism,” and are relatively insignificant, though the trend is expected to continue.

France surpassed all other countries at 43 total reported incidents during the reporting period. Spain and Germany came at a distant second and third, respectively. Denmark reported the most incidents, 8, in Q1 2023. Hospitals were by far the most targeted out of all entities in the health sector, with 89 total reported incidents. Healthcare providers accounted for 53% of total reported incidents. 60% of threat actors involved were cybercriminals, and an overwhelming 83% of cyber incidents were motivated by financial gain. Alongside ransomware, data-related threats and intrusion were common among the nature of reported cyber threats.

Notably, the reporting period coincided with some of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the health sector became a prime target for cyberattacks. The report noted that the patient data of European citizens was leaked during this time, often because of inadequate security practices and misconfigurations. In some cases, the data was sold. The report stressed the importance mitigating these vulnerabilities, as patient data/electronic health records accounted for 30% of all impacted assets.

To bolster cybersecurity practices, the report instructed health organizations to expand training programs, regularly conduct risk assessments, and create cyber incident response plans, among other recommendations.

ENISA’s executive director, Juhan Lepassaar, promoted these recommendations in a press release and cited COVID-19 as an example. He said, “A high common level of cybersecurity for the healthcare sector in the EU is essential to ensure health organizations can operate in the safest way. The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic showed us how we critically depend on health systems. What I consider as a wake-up call confirmed we need to get a clearer view of the risks, the attack surface and the vulnerabilities specific to the sector.”


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