FBI:Ransomware Assault on Health System10/29 06:38
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.
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
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
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 dark web were discussing plans to try to
infect more than 400 hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities.
"One of the comments from the bad guys is that they are expecting to cause
panic and, no, they are not hitting election systems," Holden said. "They are
hitting where it hurts even more and they know it." U.S. officials have
repeatedly expressed concern about major ransomware attacks affecting the
presidential election, even if the criminals are motivated chiefly by profit.
Mandiant's Carmakal identified the criminal gang as UNC1878, saying "it is
deliberately targeting and disrupting U.S. hospitals, forcing them to divert
patients to other healthcare providers" and producing prolonged delays in
He called the eastern European group "one of most brazen, heartless, and
disruptive threat actors I've observed over my career."
While no one has proven suspected ties between the Russian government and
gangs that use the Trickbot platform, Holden said he has "no doubt that the
Russian government is aware of this operation --- of terrorism, really." He
said dozens of different criminal groups use Ryuk, paying its architects a cut.
Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and former chief technical officer of the
cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, said there are "certainly lot of connections
between Russian cyber criminals and the state," with Kremlin-employed hackers
sometimes moonlighting as cyber criminals.
Neither Holden nor Carmakal would identify the affected hospitals. Four
healthcare institutions have been reported hit by ransomware so far this week,
three belonging to the St. Lawrence County 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 did not immediately
return phone calls seeking comment.
Increasingly, ransomware criminals are stealing data from their targets
before encrypting networks, using it for extortion. They often sow the malware
weeks before activating it, waiting for moments when they believe they can
extract the highest payments, said Brett Callow, an analyst at the
cybersecurity firm Emsisoft.
A total of 59 U.S. healthcare providers/systems have been impacted by
ransomware in 2020, disrupting patient care at up to 510 facilities, Callow
Carmakal said Mandiant had provided Microsoft on Wednesday with as much
detail as it could about the thr eat so it could distribute details to its
customers. A Microsoft spokesman had no immediate comment.