A cyberattack on Ireland’s health system has paralyzed the country’s health services for a week, cutting off access to patient records, delaying Covid-19 testing, and forcing cancellations of medical appointments.
Using ransomware, which is malware that encrypts a victims’ data until they pay a ransom, the people behind the attack have been holding hostage the data at Ireland’s publicly funded health care system, the Health Service Executive. The attack forced the H.S.E. to shut down its entire information technology system.
In a media briefing on Thursday, Paul Reid, chief executive of the H.S.E., said the attack was “stomach churning.”
Caroline Kohn, a spokeswoman for a group of hospitals in the eastern part of the country, said the hospitals were forced to keep all of their records on paper. “We’re back to the 1970s,” she said.
Security researchers believe the attack on Ireland’s hospitals is the work of a Russian-speaking cybercriminal group known as Wizard Spider. In a ransom note posted online, the criminals have threatened to publish the health network’s stolen data, unless officials pay a $19,999,000 ransom.
Ireland’s prime minister, Micheál Martin, said the government would not pay. “We’re very clear we will not be paying any ransom,” he said in a news conference last week.
Mr. Reid said the impact would be felt for many weeks. “This is not a short sprint,” Mr. Reid said. “This is going to be a sustained period impact.”
The attack is the latest in a surge of ransomware attacks on hospitals around the world in recent weeks.
In California, Scripps Health, which operates five hospitals and a number of clinics in San Diego, is still trying to bring its systems back online two weeks after a ransomware attack crippled its data. In New Zealand, a ransomware attack paralyzed multiple hospitals across the country, forcing clinicians to use pen and paper, and postponing nonelective surgeries.
Late last year, a ransomware attack on the University of Vermont’s Medical Center upended the lives of cancer patients whose chemotherapy treatments had to be delayed or recreated from memory.
The attacks come on top of a similar ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, the American pipeline operation that supplies nearly half the gas, diesel and jet fuel to the East Coast. That attack prompted Colonial Pipeline to shut down its pipeline operations, triggering panic buying at the pump and gas and jet fuel shortages along the East Coast. Colonial Pipeline agreed to pay its extortionists, a different cybercriminal gang called DarkSide, nearly $5 million to decrypt its data.
The attack in Ireland has caused backlogs inside emergency rooms from Dublin to Galway, and patients have been urged to stay away from hospitals unless they require urgent care.
In many Irish counties, appointments have been canceled for radiation treatments, MRIs, gynecological visits, endoscopies and other health services. Health authorities said the attack was also causing delays in Covid-19 test results, but a vaccine appointment system was still working.
Irish health officials said Thursday that H.S.E. was working to build a new network, separate from the one that has been affected. Hundreds of experts have been recruited to rebuild 2,000 distinct systems. The effort is likely to cost tens of millions of euros, Mr. Reid said.
The H.S.E. said Thursday that it had been provided with a key that could decrypt the data being held for ransom, but it was unclear if it would work.
Ransomware attacks against hospitals surged after two separate efforts — one by the Pentagon’s Cyber Command and a separate legal fight by Microsoft — to take down a major botnet, a network of infected computers, called Trickbot, that served as a major conduit for ransomware.
In the weeks that followed those efforts, cybercriminals said they planned to attack more than 400 hospitals. The threat caused the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to warn health care operators to improve their protection from ransomware.
Ransomware groups continue to operate with relative immunity in Russia, where government officials rarely prosecute cybercriminals and refuse to extradite them. In response to the Colonial Pipeline episode last week, President Biden said Russia bore some responsibility for ransomware attacks because cybercriminals operate within its borders.
Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm, said members of Wizard Spider, the group responsible for the attack on Ireland’s health systems, spoke Russian and researchers “have high confidence that they are Eastern European, likely Russian.”
Last month, the data of a school district in Florida was held hostage by Wizard Spider. Broward County Public Schools, the sixth largest school district in the United States, was hacked by cybercriminals who demanded $40 million in cryptocurrency. The criminals encrypted data and posted thousands of the school district’s files online after officials declined to pay.
Last December, the chip maker Advantech was also hit by Wizard Spider. Its data was posted to the so-called dark web after it refused to pay.
Some cyber insurance companies have covered the costs of ransom payments, calculating that the ransom payments are still cheaper than the cost of rebuilding systems and data from scratch. Regulators have started to pressure insurance companies out of paying ransom demands, arguing that they are only fueling more ransomware attacks and emboldening cybercriminals to make more lucrative demands.
AXA, the French insurance giant, said last week that it would no longer cover ransom payments. Within days of its announcement, AXA was hit with a ransomware attack that paralyzed information technology operations in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
“This is just business as usual,” John Dickson, a cybersecurity expert at the San Antonio-based Denim Group, said in an interview Thursday. “These attacks should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.”