Yukon’s information and privacy commissioner: How medical staff can avoid the risks of ransomware

With attacks up 600 per cent over last year, precautions are more important than ever

COMMENTARY

By Diane McLeod-McKay

It appears that the risk of ransomware attacks locking doctors and medical institutions out of their own files has now become a reality for some areas of Canada. Although there are no reports yet of doctors or other healthcare providers being affected by ransomware in Yukon, now is the time to ensure we are ready, if and when the time comes.

An article in the Aug. 30 National Post discusses an increase in ransomware attacks on Canadian doctors’ offices and hospitals.

Ransomware is “malware” or malicious software that installs itself on computers and other electronic devices. It encrypts the entire hard drive, or specific files, and then demands a ransom be paid before the information is decrypted.

The article warned that hackers have been targeting Canadian doctors and hospitals in this way, indicating that a major healthcare organization in Ontario reported that it is “getting physicians on a regular basis saying, ‘I have a computer, I got locked out, I have ransomware.’” The article also reported that there has been an estimated 600 per cent increase in ransomware attacks in the past year.

Once computers or systems are infected with this kind of malware, doctors or medical institutions are ordered to pay a ransom in bitcoin, to regain access to their files. The risks posed by these attacks are significant. During a ransomware attack, all files (including patient information) stored on the computer are inaccessible. With this information unavailable to healthcare providers, there are serious risks to patient safety and care. A doctor can be missing key aspects of a patient’s history while diagnosing or dealing with a health issue.

Even if the doctor’s office or institution has a backup system in place, the process to restore these files is not instantaneous and can take several hours or days. And, if the ransom is not paid by the deadline given, hackers will destroy the files, which means the important medical history of patients would be lost. There are additional risks to patient privacy, if hackers are able to access patient files during the attack.

There are a number of things that can be done to mitigate the risk of becoming a victim of a ransomware attack.

Computers in a doctor’s office can become infected when someone opens an attachment or link in an email containing malware, which is then installed when opened. Ransomware on a networked computer system can also spread to others connected to the network. Doctors and their staff need to educate themselves about how to recognize suspicious emails, and about phishing or spear-phishing attacks, which lure people into providing information that enables hackers to gain access to their computers and systems.

Doctors’ offices must ensure they have good information security practices and policies that include regular backup of computer files.

It is also important to have a documented breach management process, so valuable time is not lost trying to navigate the steps necessary to address an attack. Yukon’s Health Information Privacy and Management Act (HIPMA) has specific requirements that doctors must meet when a privacy breach occurs. I encourage doctors to familiarize themselves with these requirements and build them into their breach management procedures.

While doctors’ offices are currently being targeted for ransomware attacks, other healthcare providers could be next. I strongly recommend that all healthcare providers examine their information security management procedures and take the steps necessary to address the risks associated with a ransomware attack.

My office recently issued a Ransomware Advisory which provides more detail on how these attacks occur, how to prevent them, and what steps to take to respond to an attack. It is available on our website at www.ombudsman.yk.ca. You can find it in the Yukon Information and Privacy Commissioner section of the website, under the tab entitled “For Custodians.”

This fall, we will be presenting privacy breach management workshops for healthcare information custodians (as set out under HIPMA) that will specifically address these risks.

My office is also available by phone if you have concerns or questions about ransomware or the upcoming workshops, at 867-667-8468, or toll-free in Yukon at 1-800-661-0408, ext 8468.

Diane McLeod-McKay is the Information and Privacy Commissioner of the Yukon.