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Cyber warning issued for key healthcare organisations in UK and US

07 May 2020

SECURITY AGENCIES in the UK and the United States have exposed malicious cyber campaigns deliberately targeting organisations involved in the Coronavirus response and delivered Best Practice advice in terms of how security and risk management professionals can keep those organisations safe.

An advisory for international healthcare and medical research organisations has been published, duly advising staff to change any passwords that could be reasonably guessed to one created with three random words and implement two-factor authentication in order to reduce the threat of compromises.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the US Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) have seen large-scale ‘password spraying’ campaigns against healthcare bodies and medical research organisations. The ‘advanced persistent threat’ (APT) groups target such bodies to collect bulk personal information, Intellectual Property and intelligence that aligns with national priorities.

Paul Chichester, director of operations at the NCSC, explained: “Protecting the healthcare sector is the NCSC’s first and foremost priority at this time, and we’re working closely with the NHS to keep its systems safe. By prioritising any requests for support from health organisations and remaining in close contact with industries involved in the Coronavirus response, we can inform them of any malicious activity and take the necessary steps to help them defend against it. However, we cannot do this alone. We recommend healthcare policy-makers and researchers take our actionable steps to defend themselves from password spraying campaigns.”

Bryan Ware, assistant director of cyber security at CISA, said: “CISA has prioritised its cyber security services for healthcare and private organisations that provide medical support services and supplies in a concerted effort to prevent incidents and enable them to focus on their response to COVID-19. The trusted and continuous cyber security collaboration that CISA has with the NCSC and industry partners plays a critical role in protecting the public and organisations, specifically during this time as healthcare organisations are working at maximum capacity.”

‘Password spraying’

Security officials have identified the targeting of national and international healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, research organisations and local Government with the likely aim of gathering information related to the Coronavirus outbreak.

‘Password spraying’ references any attempt to access a large number of accounts using commonly known passwords. The NCSC previously revealed the most commonly hacked passwords which attackers are known to use to gain access to personal and corporate accounts and networks.

This latest report follows a joint advisory published by the NCSC and CISA on 8 April about cyber criminals exploiting the Coronavirus outbreak for their own personal gain. It's expected that the frequency of Coronavirus-related cyber attacks will increase over the coming weeks and months.

Last month, the NCSC created the Suspicious E-Mail Reporting Service after seeing an increase in Coronavirus-related e-mail scams. In its first week, the service received more than 25,000 reports resulting in 395 phishing sites being taken down.