Health Care Cyber Security During Epidemics

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Laptop with virus attack warning message on screen and stethoscope

Health care cyber security is crucial to maintaining operations and safeguarding patient data during epidemics.

Hackers don’t respect privacy, even during a global pandemic. Plastic surgeon Kristen Tarbet, MD, of Bellevue, WA, found this out the hard way on May 1, 2020, when the Maze ransomware group, which had previously assured the world that the health care sector would be off limits for the duration of the pandemic, successfully attacked her practice.

Maze published patient appointments and purposes along with names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, passwords to merchant accounts and a wealth of miscellaneous information online as proof of its successful attack, according to the article, “Maze Ransomware Hackers Post Patient Stolen Data from 2 Providers.”

Clinic and hospital cyber security is an integral part of running a health care business. And when a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic occurs, health care cyber security is crucial to maintain patient data, remote communications technology and smooth facility operations, especially where high numbers of confirmed cases are present.

Because of the current global 4 million-person shortage in the cyber security field, according to (ISC)2, anyone with an online cyber security master’s degree can expect to be in high demand, particularly in health care.

Health Care Cyber Security Vulnerabilities

Ransomware represents the primary threat to health care cyber security, especially during a crisis. Clinics and hospitals caught unprepared by a ransomware attack are more likely to pay the ransom ASAP due to an increased level of urgency and higher demand on critical services — and hackers know this.

“Downtime is always an issue in the event of a ransomware attack,” writes former IT professional Lance Whitney in his article, “How Hospitals Can Be Proactive to Prevent Ransomware Attacks” on “Even if the data is recoverable, either through the attacker or through some other means, the victims end up wasting precious time and resources trying to bounce back from the attack.”

Whitney stresses that health care businesses must remain vigilant in preparing for ransomware attacks by:

  • Helping the IT department to do its job: The IT department’s work will flow more smoothly if all employees check inbound emails for threats; maintain the latest firmware and patches; confirm that security systems and firewalls are operating properly; use secure VPNs when working remotely; and ensure that sensitive information is properly encrypted.
  • Training: IT professionals should train health care workers on how to spot suspicious emails and phishing attempts. Training must also emphasize that no one should give out login credentials over the phone, by email or in messages. The facility also should have a contingency plan should a security breach occur.
  • Backing up data: Health care facilities should keep all sensitive and critical data backed up with multiple recovery points and at different facilities. Whitney suggests the “3-2-1 Rule”: Keep three different backups, two on different media and one offsite.
  • Using the cloud: Because many health care companies are too small to maintain an offsite server farm and backup location, they can instead use secure cloud services for storing sensitive data. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is one example. “Immutable buckets” services, which prohibit data from being deleted or altered, are also available to health care businesses.

Another vulnerability that hospitals and health care clinics should be careful not to overlook is the technology associated with smart buildings and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT).

“There are many different building systems in health care that present cyber security vulnerabilities,” Bill Siwicki writes in “Smart Buildings Present a Unique Healthcare Cybersecurity Threat” on “[Health care organizations] have vulnerabilities rooted in operational technology in places such as HVACs, fire alarm systems, digital signage, elevators, water or electric meters, lighting, and many more.”

Prevention of Cybercrimes and the COVID-19 Crisis

International humanitarian law (IHL) functions as a protection for medical facilities during armed conflicts and often intersects with crises, according to Kubo Mačák, et al, in’s “Cyber Attacks Against Hospitals and the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Strong are International Law Protections?”
IHL requires that all participants in a conflict protect medical clinics, transports and personnel, and that such protection must also extend into the realm of cyberspace. Refusal to comply with this law can result in war crimes charges. The issue here, of course, is that the coronavirus pandemic has nothing to do with military conflict.

Another view on cyber attacks during a pandemic involves interference with national sovereignty by prohibiting a state from exercising its right to function properly within its territory. Again, though, this approach becomes complicated where cyberspace is concerned.

In “Note to Nations: Stop Hacking Hospitals,”’s Christian Ruhl sums up the reality of cyber security and COVID-19 by saying, “… the rules regulating behavior in cyberspace are still underdeveloped. … There hasn’t been what people call a cyber-Hiroshima — an event so horrifying that it creates widespread international revulsion against cyber-operations.”

The coronavirus crisis may prove to be that instigating event soon, urging sovereign nations and international organizations to prioritize health care cyber security.

University of North Dakota’s Master of Science in Cyber Security Program

Choosing the right online cyber security master’s program is crucial. The best programs offer courses that keep current with today’s cyber security issues and concerns.
UND’s online cyber security master’s degree program is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the Top 25 Most Innovative Schools (2018), alongside such prestigious institutions as Stanford, Harvard and MIT.

UND prepares students for careers in cyber security with concentrations in Autonomous Systems Cyber Security, Cyber Security and Behavior, Data Security and General Cyber Security. For more information, visit the program’s website.


Maze Ransomware Hackers Post Patient Stolen Data from 2 Providers –

Cyber Security Shortage –

How Hospitals Can Be Proactive to Prevent Ransomware Attacks –

Smart Buildings Present a Unique Healthcare Cybersecurity Threat –

Cyber Attacks Against Hospitals and the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Strong are International Law Protections? –

Note to Nations: Stop Hacking Hospitals –