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UK’s Largest National Health Service (NHS) Trust Discloses ‘IT Attack’

Barts Health NHS Trust in London suffered an unspecified ‘IT attack’ on January 13. Initial reports suspected it was a ransomware attack; but this has since been ruled out. Nevertheless, the Trust took ‘a number of drives offline as a precautionary measure.’

Barts Health NHS Trust in London suffered an unspecified ‘IT attack’ on January 13. Initial reports suspected it was a ransomware attack; but this has since been ruled out. Nevertheless, the Trust took ‘a number of drives offline as a precautionary measure.’

Barts (Wikipedia) is the largest National Health Service (NHS) Trust in the UK, operating five hospitals in London: Mile End Hospital, Newham University Hospital, The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield in the City, and Whipps Cross University Hospital.

The health service journal HSJ reported (subscription required) Friday, “The largest NHS hospital trust in England has been infected with a ransomware virus causing it to take its pathology service offline, HSJ can reveal.”

The claim was based on reports of an internal email to employees warning that the trust was suffering a “ransomware virus attack issue,” followed by an afternoon communication warning that three of the trust’s four hospitals had engaged “operating downtime procedures” for their pathology systems.

However at the time of this report, the only official statement from Barts rules out ransomware. “On 13 January Barts Health became aware of an IT attack,” it states. “We continue to urgently investigate this matter and have taken a number of drives offline as a precautionary measure. Importantly, we can now rule out ransomware as the root cause. We have also established that in addition to the Trust’s core clinical system Cerner Millennium, Radiology and imaging from X-rays and scans continue to be used as normal. We have tried and tested contingency plans in place and are making every effort to ensure that patient care will not be affected.”

The nature of the attack has not been specified. It is not yet known whether it is a hack attempt to steal confidential data, or a virus/worm infection spreading through Bart’s networks.

Healthcare has become a major target in recent years — for both ransomware and theft of patient data. The need for hospitals to maintain operational status at all times can sometimes force those without adequate backup and recovery systems to pay a ransom; while the high value of patient records is a continuous attraction for cybercriminals. The Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles paid a $17,000 ransom to recover its data in February 2016. A year earlier, Anthem had the personal details of nearly 80 million customers stolen.

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This problem is exacerbated, particularly within the UK, by aging and legacy systems. In September 2016, freedom of information requests revealed that many NHS hospitals are still using thousands of Windows XP systems — which have been unsupported by Microsoft since 2014.

At the end of October 2016, the Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust (NLAG) was hit by a virus incident that caused hundreds of operations and appointments to be canceled. Dr Karen Dunderdale, NLAG deputy chief executive, said at the time: “A virus infected our electronic systems, and we have taken the decision, following expert advice, to shut down the majority of our systems so we can isolate and destroy it.”

NLAG did not specify that the virus was ransomware, but the November Resources Committee Highlight Report (PDF) effectively confirmed it: “The Cyber Attack featured a variant of a Malware package which was placed inside the Trust’s network by a remote intruder. The attack was halted shortly after commencement; however data elements on a number of Trust servers were encrypted.”

It wasn’t until December that ransomware was finally confirmed. “The cyber-attack experienced by Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust in October 2016 was a variant of ransomware called Globe2,” confirmed Pam Clipson, director of strategy and planning at NLAG.

Ransomware has, however, been specifically ruled out at Barts.

Written By

Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.

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