Aftermath of the cyber attack – will ministers learn the wrong lessons?

By Tony Collins

At least 16 NHS trusts out of 47 that were hit by the ransomware attack continue to face problems, according to BBC research.

And, as some patients continued to have their cancer treatments postponed, Tory, Labour and Lib-dem politicians told of their plans to spend more money on NHS IT.

But will any new money promised by government focus on basic weaknesses – such as the lack of interoperability and the structural complexities that made the health service vulnerable to cyber attack?

Last year when the health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced £4bn for NHS IT, his focus was on new technologies such as smartphone apps to order repeat prescriptions rather than any urgent need to upgrade MRI, CT and other medical devices that rely on Windows XP.

Similarly the government-commissioned Wachter review “Making IT Work: Harnessing the Power of HealthInformation Technology to Improve Care in England made no mention of Windows XP or any operating system – perhaps because ministers were much more likely to welcome a review of NHS IT that focused on innovation and new technologies.

Cancer treatments postponed

The Government’s position is that the NHS was not specifically targeted in the cyber attack and that the Tories are putting £2bn into cyber security over the next year.

Theresa May said yesterday,

“It was clear warnings were given to hospital trusts but this is not something that was focused on attacking the NHS. 150 countries are affected. Europol says there are 200,000 victims across the world. Cyber security is an issue we need to address.

“That’s why the government, when we came into government in 2010, put money into cyber security. It’s why we are putting £2bn into cyber security over the coming year.”

Similarly Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, told the BBC that the attack affected international sites that have “some of the most modern IT systems”.

But the BBC’s World at One gave an example of how the NHS’s IT problems were affecting the lives of patients.

It cited the case of Claire Hobday whose radiography appointment for breast cancer at Lincoln County Hospital was cancelled on Friday (12 May 2017) and she still doesn’t know when she’ll receive treatment. Hobday said,

“I turned up by hospital transport for my second radiotherapy session, and I, along with many other patients – at least 20 other people were waiting – and they said the computers weren’t working.

“I do have to say the staff were very good and very quickly let us all know that they were having trouble with the computers. They didn’t want to misinform us, so they were going to come and talk to us all individually and hoped they would be able to rectify it.

“Within half an hour or so they came out and said, ‘We’re really sorry but it’s not going to get sorted. We’ll send you all home and give you a call on Sunday’ which didn’t happen.

“But they did ring me this morning (15 May 2017) to say it’s not happening today and if transport turns up please don’t get in it, and it’s very unlikely it will happen tomorrow.

“It is just a bit upsetting that other authorities have managed to sort it but Lincolnshire don’t seem to have been able to do that.”

United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust told World at One it will be back in touch with patients once the IT system is restored.

Roy Grimshaw was in the middle of an MRI scan – after dye was injected into his blood stream –  when the scan was stopped and he was asked to go back into the waiting room in his gown, with tubes attached to him, while staff investigated a computer problem. After half an hour he was told the NHS couldn’t continue the scan.

Budgets “not an issue”?

GP practices continue to be affected. Keiran Sharrock, GP and medical director of Lincolnshire local medical committee, said yesterday (15 Mat 2017) that systems were switched off in “many” practices.

“We still have no access to medical records of our patients. We are asking patients to only contact the surgery if they have an urgent or emergency problem that needs dealing with today. We have had to cancel routine follow-up appointments for chronic illnesses or long-term conditions.”

Martha Kearney – BBC World at One presenter –  asked Sharrock about NHS Digital’s claim that trusts were sent details of a security patch that would have protected against the latest ransomware attack.

“I don’t think in general practice we received that information or warning. It would have been useful to have had it,” replied Sharrock.

Kearney – What about claims that budget is an aspect of this?

Sharrock: “Within general practice that doesn’t seem to be the reason this happened. Most general practices have people who can work on their IT and if we’d been given the patch and told it needed to be installed, most practices would have done that straight away.”

GCHQ

World at One also spoke to Ciaran Martin, Director General for Government and Industry Cyber Security.  He is a member of the GCHQ board and its senior information risk owner.  He used to be Constitution Director at the Cabinet Office and was lead negotiator for the Prime Minister in the run-up to the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 on a referendum on independence for Scotland.

Kearney: Did your organisation issue any warnings to the health service?

Martin: “We issue warnings and advice on how to upgrade defences constantly. It’s generally public on our website and it’s made very widely available for all organisations. We are a national organisation protecting all critical sectors and indeed individuals and smaller organisations as well.”

Huge sums spent on paying ransoms?

Kearney asked Martin, “How much money are you able to estimate is being spent on ransoms as a result of these cyber attacks?” She added,

“I did hear one astonishing claim that in the first quarter of 2016 more money was spent in the USA on responding to ransomware than [was involved] in armed robberies for the whole of that year?”

Martin: “First let me make clear that we don’t condone the payment of ransoms and we strongly advise bodies not to pay and indeed in this case the Department of Health and the NHS have been very clear that affected bodies are not to pay ransoms. Across the globe there is, sadly, a market in ransomware. It is often the private sector in shapes and sizes that is targeted.”

Martha Kearney said the UK may be a target because it has a reputation for being willing to pay ransoms.

Martin, “We are no more or less a target for ransomware than anywhere else. It’s a global business; and it is a business. It is all about return on investment for the attacker.

“What’s important about that is that it’s all about upgrading defences because you can make the return on investment lower by making it harder to get in.”

If an attacker gets in the aim must be to make it harder to get anything useful, in which case the “margin on investment goes down”. He added,

“That’s absolutely vital to addressing this problem.”

Are governments at fault?

Martin,

“Vulnerabilities will always exist in software. Regardless of who finds the underlying software defect, it’s incumbent on the entire cyber security ecosystem – individual users, enterprises, governments or whoever – to work together to mitigate the harm.”

He added that there are “all sorts of vulnerabilities out there” including with open source software.

Windows XP

Computer Weekly reports – convincingly – that the government did not cancel an IT support contract for XP.

Officials decided to end a volume pricing deal with Microsoft which left NHS organisations to continue with XP support if they chose to do so. This was clearly communicated to affected departments.

Government technology specialists, reports Computer Weekly, did not want a volume pricing deal with Microsoft to be  “comfort blanket” for organisations that – for their own local reasons – were avoiding an upgrade from XP.

Computer Weekly also reported that civil servants at the Government Digital Service expressed concerns about the lack of technical standards in the NHS to the then health minister George Freeman.

Freeman was a Department of Health minister until July 2016. In their meeting with Freeman, GDS officials  emphasised the need for a central body to set technical standards across the NHS, with the authority to ensure trusts and other organisations followed best practice, and with the transparency to highlight those who chose not to.

A source told Computer Weekly that Jeremy Hunt was also briefed on the security risks that a lack of IT standards would create in a heavily-federated NHS but it was not considered a priority at that top political level.

“Hunt never grasped the problem,” said the source.

There are doubts, though, that Hunt could have forced trusts to implement national IT security standards even if he’d wanted to. NHS trusts are largely autonomous and GDS has no authority to mandate technical standards. It can only advise.

How our trust avoided being hit

A comment by an NHS IT lead on Digital Health’s website gives an insight into how his trust avoided being hit by the latest cyber attack.  He said his trust had a “focus on perimeter security” and then worked back to the desktop.

“This is then followed up by lots of IG security pop ups and finally upgrading (painfully) windows XP to windows 7…” He added,

“NHS Digital have to take a lead on this and enforce standards for us locally to be able to use.”

He also suggests that NHS Digital sign a Microsoft Enrollment for Windows Azure [EWA] agreement as it is costly arranging such a deal locally.

 “NHS Digital must for me, step in and provide another MS EWA as I am sure the disruption and political fall-out will cost more. Introduce an NHS MS EWA, introduce standards for software suppliers to comply with latest OS and then use CQC to rate organisations that do not upgrade.”

Another comment on the Digital Health website says that even those organisations that could afford the deployment costs of moving from XP to Windows 7 were left with the “professional” version, which “Microsoft has mercilessly withdrawn core management features from (e.g. group policy features)”.

The comment said,

“There are a lot of mercenary enterprises taking advantage of the NHS’s inability to mandate and coordinate the required policies on suppliers which would at least give the under-funded and under-appreciated IT functions the ability to provide the service they so desperately want to.”

A third comment said that security and configuration management in the NHS is “pretty poor”. He added, “I don’t know why some hospitals continue to invest in home-brew email systems when there is a national solution ready and paid for.

“In this recent attack most the organisations hit seem to use local email systems.”

He also criticised NHS organisations that:

  • Do not properly segment their networks
  • Allow workstations to openly and freely connect to each other in a trusted zone.
  • Do not have a proper patch / update management regime
  • Do not firewall legacy systems
  • Don’t have basic ACLs [access control lists)

Three lessons?

  • Give GDS the ability to mandate no matter how many Sir Humphreys would be upset at every challenge to their authority. Government would work better if consensus and complacency at the top of the civil service were regarded as vices, while constructive, effective and forceful criticism was regarded as a virtue.
  • Give the NHS money to spend on the basic essentials rather than nice-to-haves such as a paperless NHS, trust-wide wi-fi, smartphone apps, telehealth and new websites. The essentials include interoperability – so that, at the least, all trusts can send test results and other medical information electronically to GPs –  and the upgrading of medical devices that rely on old operating systems.
  •  Plan for making the NHS less dependent on monolithic Microsoft support charges.

On the first day of the attacks, Microsoft released an updated patch for older Windows systems “given the potential impact to customers and their businesses”.

Patches are available for: Windows Server 2003 SP2 x64Windows Server 2003 SP2 x86, Windows XP SP2 x64Windows XP SP3 x86Windows XP Embedded SP3 x86Windows 8 x86, and Windows 8 x64.

Reuters reported last night that the share prices of cyber security companies “surged as investors bet on governments and corporations spending to upgrade their defences”.

Network company Cisco Systems also closed up (2.3%), perhaps because of a belief that it would benefit from more network spending driven by security needs.

Security company Avast said the countries worst affected by WannaCry – also known as Wannacypt – were Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine and India.

Comment

In a small room on the periphery of an IT conference on board a cruise ship , nearly all of the senior security people talked openly about how their board directors had paid ransoms to release their systems after denial of service attacks.

Some of the companies – most of them household names – had paid ransoms more than once.

Until then, I’d thought that some software suppliers tended to exaggerate IT security threats to help market their solutions and services.

But I was surprised at the high percentage of large companies in that small room that had paid ransoms. I no longer doubted that the threats – and the damage – were real and pervasive.

The discussions were not “off-the-record” but I didn’t report their comments at the time because that would doubtless have had job, and possibly even career ramifications, if I had quoted the security specialists by name.

Clearly ransomware is, as the GCHQ expert Kieran Martin put it, a global business but, as ransoms are paid secretly – there’s not a whisper in corporate annual accounts – the threat has not been taken seriously enough in some parts of the NHS.

The government’s main defence is that the NHS was not targeted specifically and that many private organisations were also affected.

But the NHS has responsibility for lives.

There may be a silver lining if a new government focuses NHS IT priorities on the basics – particularly the structural defects that make the health service an easy target for attackers.

What the NHS doesn’t need is a new set of politicians and senior civil servants who can’t help massaging their egos and trying to immortalise their legacy by announcing a patchwork of technological marvels that are fun to work on, and spend money on, but which gloss over the fact that much of the NHS is, with some notable exceptions, technologically backward.

Microsoft stockpiled patches – The Register

UK government, NHS and Windows XP support – what really happened – Computer Weekly

NHS letter on patches to counter cyber attack

Multiple sites hit by ransomware attack – Digital Health (31 comments)

Lessons from the WannaCrypt – Wannacry – cyber attack according to Microsoft

 

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5 responses to “Aftermath of the cyber attack – will ministers learn the wrong lessons?

  1. Re Computer Weekly reports – convincingly – that the government did not cancel an IT support contract for XP.

    “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

    https://governmenttechnology.blog.gov.uk/2015/05/22/update-on-the-customer-support-agreement-for-windows-xp/

    Like

  2. Thank you, Tony, for this comprehensive post.
    Wish I could say I was surprised. The dreadful thing is that, this is not the end, probably not even the beginning of the end.
    Those of us who have been stung first hand by our bureaucracies and have tried to alert those in positions of authority of the dangers ahead, get no satisfaction from the present situation. We know that our institutions bear an almost religious fervour to preserve what they have even, and particularly if, their systems are flawed.
    Whilst our attention is continually being drawn to individual idiots (terrorists) running around with weapons, the greater fear is for the vulnerability of our food supply, utilities, etc.
    As I understand it, our high street banks routinely pay out for IT blackmail and have done so for years. It now seems a fine line between legitimate and illegitimate business. Or, in other words, crime has been moving from the streets into offices for a very long time. The next step will be reclassifying what is criminal rather than identifying such.
    I feel terribly sorry for individuals caught up in this NHS IT debacle. My heart certainly goes out to them. But, as you know, more money will be spent on NHS P.R. than IT.
    Perhaps, we should all learn to fend for ourselves as much as we can. Actions speak louder than words.
    I could ramble on, but there’s no point. But I will thank you.

    Like

    • Thank you for the comment Zara. I agree it all looks grim but amid the chaos and upset for individual patients – possibly even harm – some good could come of the attack if Whitehall realises that new NHS IT money needs to be spent on the basics – such as interoperability and upgrading obsolescent technology – rather than smartphone apps and a paperless NHS which is a political obsession. A paperless NHS will happen naturally but probably not in the foreseeable future and meanwhile there are greater priorities as the cyber attack has shown. Tony.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment and the links. Computer Weekly’s point, I think, is that the government did not cancel an IT support contract for XP. It decided to end a volume pricing deal, leaving any NHS or other public sector organisation still using XP to continue with XP support if it chose to do so. Rightly, in my view, the government did not want to encourage organisations to stay on XP. I don’t think we, as taxpayers, would welcome it if GDS – at any price – signed collective pricing deals with Microsoft for XP support. It’s not easy for an NHS organisation with a CT or MRI scanner that’s certified to be used with XP to upgrade to a different operating system but the onus is on that organisation to have an effective XP support contract in place or be in a position to verify the integrity of key patches. Tony.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Tony, for this comprehensive post.
    I’m a bit too upset at the moment to respond but hope to come back later.

    Like

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