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America’s rural hospitals are repeatedly attacked by cybercriminals. Microsoft and Google are working to fix the problem – KION546

Originally published: 10 June 24, 07:04 ET

Updated: 10 June 24 18:29 ET

By Sean Lyngaas and Michelle Watson, CNN

(CNN) — Microsoft and Google will offer free or discounted cybersecurity services to rural hospitals across the U.S. to make them less vulnerable to cyberattacks that disrupt patient care and threaten lives, the White House and the technology companies said Monday.

Microsoft said in a statement to CNN that it will provide free security updates to eligible rural hospitals, as well as security assessments and training for hospital staff. Google will offer free cybersecurity consulting to rural hospitals and launch a pilot program to tailor the company’s cybersecurity services to the needs of rural hospitals.

The country’s roughly 1,800 rural community hospitals are among the most vulnerable to dangerous ransomware attacks because they often lack the necessary IT security resources and cybersecurity-trained staff. And they may be the only hospitals within dozens of miles. That means a ransomware attack that prevents a hospital from accepting ambulances can put patients’ lives at risk.

The new announcement is the result of confidential discussions between the technology companies and officials at the White House National Security Council, who are increasingly concerned about cyber threats to hospitals. It is an attempt to leverage the wide reach of Microsoft and Google’s software, which is used in hospitals across the US, to fill a gap in the health sector’s defenses.

“We are entering uncharted territory as we see this wave of attacks on hospitals,” Anne Neuberger, the top cyber official at the White House National Security Council, told reporters on Sunday.

The Biden administration is also preparing to introduce minimum cybersecurity requirements for U.S. hospitals. The details of this proposal have yet to be worked out. However, the American Hospital Association, which represents hospitals across the United States, opposes the proposal, saying it would impose penalties on cyberattack victims after a hacker attack.

A growing problem

The number of ransomware attacks on the U.S. healthcare sector increased 128% in 2023 compared to 2022, according to data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. And recent ransomware attacks have highlighted the sector’s vulnerability.

A ransomware attack in February on a major health insurance billing company cost healthcare providers billions of dollars and pushed some health clinics to the brink of bankruptcy. UnitedHealth Group, whose subsidiary was hacked, paid the hackers a $22 million ransom to try to recover patient data. A third of all Americans may have had their data stolen.

Another ransomware attack in May on one of America’s largest hospital chains put patients’ lives at risk by forcing nurses to manually enter prescription information, several nurses at the affected hospitals told CNN.

The FBI and its international allies have conducted a series of raids on ransomware gangs, seizing the computers they used and decrypting some of victims’ computers encrypted by hackers. But ransomware remains a thriving business, in part, U.S. authorities say, because many of its perpetrators operate with impunity from Russia.

The healthcare sector is a particularly tempting target, as hospitals under pressure to restore patient care are sometimes willing to pay the ransom.

“We’re seeing a much more permissive environment for hacktivists and criminals in Russia, and that’s concerning,” Neuberger, a White House official, told reporters. “We’re also seeing more and more companies paying ransoms. And every ransom payment feeds the beast and drives more attacks.”

Cyberattack on Cleveland paralyzes City Hall

Cyber ​​attacks often also brought down other vulnerable services.

According to a statement from Mayor Justin Bibb, the City of Cleveland is investigating a cyber incident. As a precautionary measure, the city closed City Hall on Monday and will keep it closed on Tuesday.

Cleveland has also shut down all internal systems and software. But city and emergency services such as the Department of Public Safety, 911, police, fire, ambulance and the Department of Public Utilities remain operational, Bibb’s office said. However, the mayor said emergency services are operating with limited IT capacity.

“Over the weekend, the city identified some anomalies,” said Commissioner Kimberly Roy-Wilson of the city’s Information Technology Services Department. “We have revised our containment protocols and procedures and are now investigating the nature and extent of these anomalies.”

Bibb declined to say how many or which agencies are assisting with the investigation.

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