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More than 100,000 people who had data stolen during HSE cyber-attack to be contacted

The HSE is set to begin contacting the more than 100,000 people who had their personal data stolen during the cyber-attack on the health service in May 2021, The Irish Times today reports.

The beginning of contact with those impacted, to take place in the coming weeks, could potentially pave the way for further controversy around the attack, and the risk of litigation arising from it, the paper reports.

The Health Service Executive suffered the major ransomware cyber-attack, causing all of its IT systems to be shut down, on the morning on May 14, 2021. It became the most significant cybercrime attack on any Irish State agency, and the largest known attack against a health service computer system anywhere. Those responsible were identified as a criminal gang known as Wizard Spider, reported to be operating from Russia who attacked the IT system using the Conti ransomware. 

On 28 May, the HSE confirmed that confidential medical information for 520 patients, along with corporate documents, were published online. 

Speaking in June, HSE chief Paul Reid said that the attack had inflicted a “devastating” impact on the health service, one which “could not be overstated”.

For the majority of those impacted who had their data stolen, the data in question is less sensitive, however, sources have admitted that for a smaller number of people, the hacked information contains more sensitive data. 

Since the attack, the HSE has been locked in a process of reviewing the data and analysing how far it has spread, while engaging with the Data Protection Commissioner.

The Irish Times today reports: “The expectation is that people will be contacted on a staggered basis. The HSE has used servers with copies of the data obtained by the Garda to carry out widespread monitoring.

“A spokesman for the HSE said that it has “been monitoring the internet, including the dark web since the cyberattack, and has seen no evidence at this point that the illegally accessed and copied data has been published online or used for any criminal purposes”.

He added that: “The HSE is taking every step necessary to minimise the impact of this data breach and to safeguard individuals’ personal data against any future unauthorised activity,” the spokesman said, adding that experts continue to monitor for any signs of illegally accessed information and “we will act immediately if they see any evidence of this”.

The majority of those who were impacted by the attack are believed to be HSE service users, although some members of staff have also been affected, a number which could run into the tens of thousands, the Irish Times reports.

Earlier this year, the HSE board had to confront the reality of the threat of litigation arising from the hack, as well as the merits of establishing a scheme to manage claims.

The attack has cost the health service a staggering €100 million so far, according to a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) released in September. This is expected to rise, with the report also revealing how HSE computers were only monitored for viruses during daytime hours prior to the disastrous attack.

Since the cyber attack, the HSE has introduced enhanced monitoring service providing 24-hour support.

The Irish Times further reports that the emergence of those impacted, and the plan to start initiating contact with them in the weeks ahead, is likely to shine a spotlight on the HSE’s cybersecurity systems in place before the attack took place. 

In the C&AG report, the auditor pointed to an internal audit carried out prior to the cyber attack, which outlined issues with the HSE’s IT infrastructure, including the use of “outdated and unsupported” software.

“Substantial investment in the HSE IT systems will be required to ensure that the systems are fit for purpose, that operational platforms are upgraded and to ensure that client and patient personal data is sufficiently protected from external threats.”

Worst impacted areas were scans, lab services, maternity and primary care, and blood tests following the attack, with HSE staff forced to return to paper records in light of the loss of computer connectivity.

The attack also led to the cancellation of thousands of patient appointments, leading to an increase in waiting lists. 

Last week, Ireland joined an international task force to combat ransomware hackers. Richard Browne, Director of the NCSC, along with other Irish officials, travelled to the White House for the second annual summit on countering online hackers, meeting with the Counter Ransomware Initiative.

The summit reaffirmed a joint commitment with other nations to “building our collective resistance to ransomware, cooperating to disrupt ransomware and pursue the actors responsible, countering illicit finance that underpins the ransomware ecosystem, working with the private sector to defend against ransomware attacks, and continuing to cooperate internationally across all elements of the ransomware threat,” a statement from the White House read.

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