FBI warns ransomware assault threatens US health care system

BOSTON (AP) — Federal agencies warned that cybercriminals could unleash a wave of data-scrambling extortion attempts against the U.S. health care system, an effort that, if successful, could paralyze hospital information systems just as nationwide cases of COVID-19 are spiking.

In a joint alert Wednesday, the FBI and two federal agencies said they had credible information of “an increased and imminent cybercrime threat” to U.S. hospitals and health care providers. The alert said malicious groups are targeting the sector with attacks aiming for “data theft and disruption of healthcare services.”

The impact of the expected attack wave is difficult to assess.


It involves a particular strain of ransomware, which scrambles a target’s data into gibberish until they pay up. Previous such attacks on health care facilities have impeded care and, in one case in Germany, led to the death of a patient, but such consequences are still rare.

The federal warning itself could help stave off the worst consequences, either by leading hospitals to take additional precautions or by expanding efforts to knock down the systems cybercriminals use to launch such attacks.

The offensive coincides with the U.S. presidential election, although there is no immediate indication the cybercriminals involved are motivated by anything but profit. The federal alert was co-authored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Independent security experts say the ransomware, called Ryuk, has already impacted at least five U.S. hospitals this week and could potentially affect hundreds more. Four health care institutions have been reported hit by ransomware so far this week, three belonging to the St. Lawrence Health System in upstate New York and the Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Sky Lakes acknowledged the ransomware attack in an online statement, saying it had no evidence that patient information was compromised. It said emergency and urgent care “remain available.”

The St. Lawrence system also acknowledged a Tuesday ransomware attack, noting in a statement released Thursday that no patient or employee data appeared to have been accessed or compromised. Matthew Denner, the emergency services director for St. Lawrence County, told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise that the hospital owner instructed the county to divert ambulances from two of the affected hospitals for a few hours Tuesday. The company did not return requests for comment on that report.

Alex Holden, CEO of Hold Security, which has been closely tracking Ryuk for more than a year, said the attack could be unprecedented in magnitude for the U.S. In a statement, Charles Carmakal, chief technical officer of the security firm Mandiant, said the cyberthreat could be the “most significant” the country has ever seen.

The U.S. has seen a plague of ransomware over the past 18 months or so, with major cities from Baltimore to Atlanta hit and local governments and schools walloped especially hard.

In September, a ransomware attack hobbled all 250 U.S. facilities of the hospital chain Universal Health Services, forcing doctors and nurses to rely on paper and pencil

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FBI warns ransomware assault threatens US healthcare system

BOSTON (AP) — Federal agencies warned that cybercriminals are unleashing a wave of data-scrambling extortion attempts against the U.S. healthcare system designed to lock up hospital information systems, which could hurt patient care just as nationwide cases of COVID-19 are spiking.

In a joint alert Wednesday, the FBI and two federal agencies warned that they had “credible information of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat to U.S. hospitals and healthcare providers.” The alert said malicious groups are targeting the sector with attacks that produce “data theft and disruption of healthcare services.”

The cyberattacks involve ransomware, which scrambles data into gibberish that can only be unlocked with software keys provided once targets pay up. Independent security experts say it has already hobbled at least five U.S. hospitals this week, and could potentially impact hundreds more.

The offensive by a Russian-speaking criminal gang coincides with the U.S. presidential election, although there is no immediate indication they were motivated by anything but profit. “We are experiencing the most significant cyber security threat we’ve ever seen in the United States,” Charles Carmakal, chief technical officer of the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, said in a statement.

Alex Holden, CEO of Hold Security, which has been closely tracking the ransomware in question for more than a year, agreed that the unfolding offensive is unprecedented in magnitude for the U.S. given its timing in the heat of a contentions presidential election and the worst global pandemic in a century.

The federal alert was co-authored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services.


The cybercriminals launching the attacks use a strain of ransomware known as Ryuk, which is seeded through a network of zombie computers called Trickbot that Microsoft began trying to counter earlier in October. U.S. Cyber Command has also reportedly taken action against Trickbot. While Microsoft has had considerable success knocking its command-and-control servers offline through legal action, analysts say criminals have still been finding ways to spread Ryuk.

The U.S. has seen a plague of ransomware over the past 18 months or so, with major cities from Baltimore to Atlanta hit and local governments and schools hit especially hard.

In September, a ransomware attack hobbled all 250 U.S. facilities of the hospital chain Universal Health Services, forcing doctors and nurses to rely on paper and pencil for record-keeping and slowing lab work. Employees described chaotic conditions impeding patient care, including mounting emergency room waits and the failure of wireless vital-signs monitoring equipment.

Also in September, the first known fatality related to ransomware occurred in Duesseldorf, Germany, when an IT system failure forced a critically ill patient to be routed to a hospital in another city.

Holden said he alerted federal law enforcement Friday after monitoring infection attempts at a number of hospitals, some of which may have beaten back infections. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He said the group was demanding ransoms well above $10 million per target and that criminals involved on the

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