Two-thirds of UK healthcare organisations breached last year

The majority of healthcare organisations in the UK experienced a cyber security incident during 2019, with almost half the result of viruses and malware introduced on third party devices

Nearly three years after WannaCry laid waste to IT systems across the NHS, an apparent institutional failure to address lax cyber security measures has been highlighted by a new report from Clearswift, which has claimed that 67% of UK healthcare organisations experienced some kind of cyber security incident during 2019.

Clearswift – which is owned by US automation and security specialists HelpSystems – enlisted Vanson Bourne to survey IT leaders and decision makers in healthcare organisations, and found that 48% of all incidents were virus or malware infections that occurred through the use of uncleared and unsecured third party devices, such as internet of things (IoT) enabled equipment, or USB thumb drives.

Other factors in attacks on the health sector included the sharing of information with unauthorised recipients (39%), users failing to follow protocol or data protection policies (37%), and users clicking on malicious links in emails or on social media (28%), suggesting that user education in the industry is not being taken seriously either.

“The healthcare sector holds important patient data, so it’s alarming to see such high numbers of security incidents occurring in the industry,” said Alyn Hockey, Clearswift’s vice-president of product management.

“The healthcare sector needs to securely share data across departments and organisations to facilitate excellent patient care.

“With the proliferation of third-party devices in this process, it’s more important than ever that the industry bolsters its cyber security efforts to reduce the risk of everything from unwanted data loss to malicious attacks and focusses on keeping patient data safe and secure.”

Clearswift said the number of incidents also reflected serious constraints on IT spending capabilities in the healthcare sector, with under a quarter of respondents saying that they had “adequate” levels of budget allocated to security.

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There was also a disparity between where decision makers were spending what little cash they had, and where it might be more usefully deployed. For example, 46% of respondents said they were investing in database security, but just 26% said they were paying into frontline endpoint security.

“Understanding what is threatening the safety of the critical data you hold is the first step in mitigating the risk,” said Hockey. “Therefore, cyber security strategies across healthcare organisations need to rapidly evolve to account for new threats against the sector.”

“While many aspects of staying secure come from keeping employees trained to recognise threats, technology should play a key role in helping reduce the risks that come with innovation. It’s not a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’ an incident occurs so investment is required to ensure healthcare organisations are prepared for any type of threat.”

However, said Clearswift, there were also encouraging signs that the healthcare industry might be starting to turn things around – and while too many organisations were still finding themselves attacked – boards were sitting up and taking notice, at least in part thanks to WannaCry, which 33% said had had a big impact on board-level involvement and spend in security. Others cited the American Medical Collection Agency (Amca) data breach of June 2019, which saw the details of millions of Americans leaked.

Previous research conducted by Clearswift has produced similar statistics relating to cyber attack volumes – whether successful or not – in other verticals.

Last year it revealed that 70% of UK companies in the financial sector had suffered some kind of security incident, and nearly half of these were caused by employee failure to follow their organisation’s security protocols or data protection policies.

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