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Rate of Ransomware Attacks in Healthcare Slows in H1 2020

But lull is unlikely to continue for long, some security experts say.

The relatively low number of publicly disclosed ransomware attacks on healthcare entities through mid-May 2020 suggests many threat groups are sticking by their word to avoid targeting them during the current pandemic, a new study shows.

How long that truce will hold, though, appears to be an open question.

Corvus Insurance recently analyzed threat data related to hospitals, health systems, doctors' offices, consultants, and other entities in the healthcare sector during the first several months of this year. The data shows a total of 18 publicly reported ransomware attacks on healthcare organizations through mid-May compared with 20 attacks in total during the entire first half of 2019.

Corvus estimates the total number of ransomware attacks on hospitals and other healthcare entities by the end of June will likely exceed last year's mark — but not by the margin many had expected based on attack trends prior to the pandemic.

"The Security Report on Healthcare Entities from Corvus shows that despite a significant and steady rise in ransomware attacks over the past few years, attacks on healthcare entities have actually stalled in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic," says Lauren Winchester, vice president of smart breach response at Corvus Insurance. "[The data is a] possible reflection of claims by many ransomware groups that they would avoid attacks on healthcare entities during COVID-19."  

Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra, says Corvus' finding tracks with what his own company has observed in recent months.

"We have seen no increase in external attacks against healthcare this year," Morales says, though there has been an increase in attacks targeting healthcare data in the cloud. "That shift is directly correlated to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the loosening of security policies in hospitals to ensure doctors can continue to function in providing care."

According to Morales, direct ransomware attacks in healthcare has been trending down even prior to the pandemic, at least partly because attackers have been general unable to extract large ransoms from victims in this sector.

Corvus' analysis shows that while healthcare organizations are typically more heavily targeted in ransomware attacks than many other sectors, their defenses continue to lag. For instance, only 14% of healthcare organizations in the sector currently use email scanning and filtering tools, which are technologies that security analysts consider fundamental to defending against phishing threats. Corvus' research, in fact, has shown these services could reduce the likelihood of a ransomware attack by 33%.

Open ports — such as those associated with the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) — are another concern. According to Corvus, while healthcare organizations overall tend to have a smaller attack surface than others, hospitals present a big target because of open ports. On average, hospitals have more than eight ports on their networks that are Internet-accessible and that attackers could potentially find and exploit.

Attacks Likely to Increase in H2
Winchester says the rate of ransomware attacks on healthcare entities is likely to start increasing again in the second half of this year. In fact, in 2019, before news of the pandemic, ransomware attacks in healthcare increased 75% between the first and second half of the year.

"Ransomware attack groups have historically targeted healthcare entities because the critical nature of their operations and rich set of data make for a great return on investment," she notes. "Those underlying drivers have not changed, and as the US moves toward cautious reopening, we expect attackers will re-engage with healthcare entities."

Ransomware families such as Maze, Sodinokibi, and Dopplepaymer, in particular, will likely continue to pose big threats to healthcare organizations when attacks resume. The operators of these ransomware families have shown a tendency to steal business-critical data from a victim organization before encrypting the data and then using the threat of data exposure as additional leverage for forcing ransom payments.

"The vast majority of ransomware attacks in recent years have not resulted in notifiable data breaches, but groups like Maze are actively seeking out sensitive information while in a system," Winchester says. "This creates a public relations nightmare for the healthcare entity and has very real implications for the patients whose protected health information may be published by the attackers."

Heather Paunet, vice president of product management at Untangle, says healthcare entities have another reason to worry: The increased amount of data on individuals that is being gathered as part of COVID-19-related testing activities will likely prove to be a big target.

"IT departments need to be more aware than before about how to protect their networks, their employees, and their patients," she says.

The relative lull in ransomware attacks on healthcare organizations comes even as attacks on organizations in other sectors show no signs of abating. Several security vendors have even noted an increase in ransomware attacks and other attacks types over the past few months by threat actors using COVID-19 related phising lures and websites. Just this week, for example, Japanese automaker Honda was forced to pause production at some of its plants worldwide after ransomware — believed to be SNAKE — crippled several critical systems at the company.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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