Why the NHS is facing an unprecedented cyber risk

3rd August 2020NewsAJ Thompson

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With NHS reliant on third-party suppliers for services, the volume of electronic medical data travelling across them means healthcare organisations are facing unprecedented cyber risk.

The current situation

The healthcare sector handles some of the most private and sensitive personal data across its infrastructure, and patients have the right to expect that information will be protected. However, targeted breaches and data loss incidents are becoming more common, with the NHS suffering several high-profile incidents in as many years.

Healthcare organisations increasingly rely on suppliers and other third parties to facilitate billing, data management and infrastructure, clinical services, and the handling and processing of sensitive Personally Identifiable Information (PII), from National Insurance and financial records to patients’ conditions and diagnoses. With the volume of electronic medical data travelling across these potentially unsecured third parties, healthcare organisations are facing unprecedented risk from cyberattacks.

The NHS at risk

Most recently, Healthcare organisations have been attacked by cybercriminals seeking to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). The news follows action taken by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, giving the NCSC extra powers to obtain data from NHS IT systems.

The NCSC has said that many of the attacks have been in the form of “password-spraying” where hackers guess commonly used passwords in order to access accounts. NCSC has urged NHS staff and third-party suppliers to change all passwords to three randomly generated words to help protect systems. It has also advised that two-factor authentication should also be implemented to help reduce the threat from hackers.

Worryingly, this is not the first time the NHS has come under attack. The Wannacry attack in May 2017 crippled systems throughout the NHS & led to a series of reports, analyses and soul-searching from inside and outside the organisation. The attack, though effective, was relatively unsophisticated and the apparent ease at which it entered and spread throughout the organisation highlighted the vulnerabilities that remained within the NHS, with the health service’s old IT cited as a key factor

The huge media focus on the Wannacry attack almost masked some of the everyday issues impacting the NHS’ cybersecurity efforts. The ‘Orangeworm’ attack group has developed malware specifically to target healthcare organisations and its suppliers to steal valuable and sensitive data. In April 2018, NHS Trusts were issued with a ‘high severity’ cyber alert when 200 NHS devices connected to the internet were compromised – but 80 per cent of those Trusts who were contacted didn’t respond.

All of this is made more remarkable when one considers that despite the fact that the NHS is in the top five employers globally, its IT arm, NHS Digital, has only 18-20 cybersecurity experts monitoring and managing all of the devices and threats that fall under their umbrella.

The NHS, like many other organisations, have so far only prepared to invest up to a point in their cyber defences. Building the defensive walls slightly higher than they were at the time of the original attack is considered to be, by some, the best way of enhancing their defences. This, of course, does not consider the fact that hacker groups are often two or three steps ahead of defences at all times. Building your walls slightly higher and sitting beneath, hoping for the best, is no longer the right or most cost-effective approach.

Now is the time for NHS Trusts to act

With the Department for Health and Social Care extending its deadline for NHS Trusts to comply with its Data Protection and Security Toolkit (DPST) to the 30th September, now is the time for Trusts to act, demonstrating GDPR compliance and protecting their infrastructure. However, It is understood that for many Trusts, this will be a very new process.

NHS Trusts need to look towards agile IT and Software providers who can help them to become cyber secure. Through the use of privileged access management, Trusts can certify that all employees are adhering to specific rules when creating passwords. This seemingly simple feature plays a big role in safeguarding the NHS network.

Privileged access management strengthens the overall security of a system. Providing individual accountability for all privileged users alongside gaining the ability to review privileged sessions is an invaluable asset. Implementing strong privileged access controls provides the ability to monitor actions and enables potential threats to be pinpointed easily. In the long term, your business becomes compliant, secure and efficient when it comes to monitoring, identifying and mitigating cyber security risks.

Privileged access management can be deployed on-premises or on the Microsoft Azure cloud and works across the entire hybrid infrastructure to secure and manage all types of privileged accounts. The solution provides intelligent workflows to ease administration and uses smart analytics to create baselines of usual user behaviour that can be monitored to detect when an account may have been compromised. To identify and manage privileged accounts effectively without sending cost and complexity spiralling out of control, an automated approach is critical.

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