Securing medical devices from cyberattack ‘challenge,’ Israeli experts say

Hospitals face growing number of ransomware attacks during pandemic, which could prove deadly.

A woman waits to be tested by medical staff wearing protective equipment, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the Cleveland Clinic hospital in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 20, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
A woman waits to be tested by medical staff wearing protective equipment, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the Cleveland Clinic hospital in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 20, 2020.
Cyberattacks on improperly secured medical devices run the risk of bringing hospital operations to a screeching halt and endangering patient health, experts warn.
Also known as medical IoT (Internet-of-Things) devices, this equipment often transmits sensitive patient data and includes applications such as insulin pumps, wearable health trackers, blood glucose monitors, asthma inhalers, diagnostic machines and even pacemakers.
The software, which relies on connections to the internet and hospital networks, are particularly vulnerable to cyber threats.
“One of the biggest challenges is medical devices,” Tamir Ronen, chief information security officer of Assuta Medical Centers in Israel, told The Media Line.
“Up until recently, there was no standard for securing the data on these devices; each supplier would develop their own device’s system as they saw fit,” Ronen said, noting that Assuta itself has thousands of devices connected to its healthcare system.
“Another issue is that hospitals would furthermore not replace devices for many years, exposing medical networks to potential attacks due to being outdated,” he said.
At the moment, ransomware attacks are the most common type of cyber threat faced by hospitals. The goal of such attacks is first and foremost extortion: Cybercriminals infiltrate a computer system and block access to critical files and data, demanding that organizations pay a ransom to restore the system to its previous condition.
“These days criminals don’t need to rob a bank for money,” Ronen explained.
“When hospitals don’t have data, they come to a halt,” he said. “You can’t use medical devices, know anything about a given patient or update their medical information… so it’s like going back 20 years and working with no computer system.”
According to Ronen, cybercriminals regularly try to carry out such attacks on Assuta but have never succeeded.
Such incidents are part of a wider trend marking an increase in cyberattacks on all sectors since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, nine out of 10 public- and private-sector organizations and businesses in Israel recently reported a breach of their operational-technology networks, according to a survey released by Bynet Data Communications earlier this week.
In the past year alone, 56% of those surveyed – including hospitals, steel factories and operators of sewage infrastructure and electricity networks – reported that they were successfully hacked.
Ronen spoke to The Media Line on the sidelines of Cyber Week, a large annual event normally held at Tel Aviv University (TAU) but this year hosted online. The three-day event, which began on Monday, featured industry leaders, investors, cybersecurity experts and government officials.
It was jointly sponsored by the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center (ICRC); the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security; TAU; the Israeli National Cyber Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, a retired major general, is chairperson of Cyber Week and director of TAU’s Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center. He is often referred to as the father of Israel’s cybersecurity industry and is one of the country’s top experts in the sphere.
“You mention a threat, we face it in Israel,” Ben-Israel told The Media Line.
“We are one of the most attacked countries in the world due to our geostrategic situation in the Middle East,” he said. “Fortunately enough, we have not yet experienced a real, successful attack.”
One of the reasons that Israel has been able to rebuff serious threats, Ben-Israel says, is because the country maintains a technological edge over others. Nevertheless, new threats are constantly emerging as technology rapidly advances.
Like Ronen, Ben-Israel points to attacks on medical networks as being a significant issue in recent months.
“There [has been] a rise in attacks against hospitals during the pandemic,” he said.
One such attack claimed the life of a woman in Germany last month in what might be the first case of its kind. Hackers disabled computer systems at Dusseldorf University Hospital, rendering them inoperable and delaying treatment for the woman, who was critically ill.
The cybercriminals attempted to extort money from the hospital in order to unlock its information-technology network. The incident is currently under investigation.
“This is the first casualty that we know about due to a cyberattack,” Ben-Israel said.
He believes that while malicious hackers are increasingly targeting the healthcare industry, it is unlikely that terror groups would be able to carry out attacks in this realm or on critical infrastructure, mainly to due to a lack of resources.
“You need a lot of intelligence about the internal architecture of the computer network within a power station,” he said, “which is usually very difficult to [access].”
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