Cyber Security and The South African Healthcare Industry During Covid-19

The report below will examine cyber threats to the local and international healthcare industry during the Covid-19 pandemic and what impact it has on the safety, security and livelihoods of patients’ data and in the worst case scenario, their lives.


Health Care Industry During Covid-19


It was always a given that the Covid-19 pandemic would disrupt both the international and South African healthcare system by putting severe pressure on an international shortage of medical facilities, beds, ventilators, healthcare practitioners and assistants. At the same time, public is increasingly becoming overwhelmed with fear and panic, enforced with decreased mobility and border closures. They are being exposed to contemporary technology to work from home or streamline existing processes, often with little to no experience thereof prior.


The healthcare and pharmaceutical industry itself is built on patients’ trust and contains a plethora of confidential current and historical biographical information. However, as the pandemic continues to expand, physical threats are increasingly culminating with cyber-threats and pose a deeper, more intrusive threat to individuals, societies and cultures.


Hospitals and healthcare facilities across the world rely on the Internet and its Information Technology (IT) backbone rendering it the subject of a number of cyber-attacks. Among the critical systems in place include Hospital Information Systems (HIS), laboratory information systems (LIS), policy and procedure management systems (PPM), personal health records (PHR), radiology information systems (RIS) and email servers. On the other end of the spectrum, a number of endpoint devices that include patient-monitoring equipment that either connects to the Internet or via a variety of networks that are often unpatched further remain prevalent.


As governments are forced to rely on healthcare records for testing and contact tracing, any disruption or corruption of data is sure to have catastrophic effects on healthcare institutions’ ability to both proactively and timeously respond to increasing Covid-19 infections. Due to the interconnected nature of the healthcare and the pharmaceutical industries with one another and the staggering amount of data available on any given patient, it is not unheard of that it can take weeks and sometimes even months before a cyber-attack is observed and acknowledged.

Did You Know?


Medical records contain a plethora of information hackers could sell on the Dark Web, misappropriate for acts of identity theft or even hold against a victim for blackmail or ransom. Similarly, cybercriminals are aware that a ransomware attack (by preventing access to patient records or to cripple an entire department within a hospital) can lead to the affected parties having little alternative but to surrender and meet a hacker’s demands to regain access to their systems. 


Among the attacks and exploitation that has been observed within the healthcare sector included an exploitation of healthcare practitioners’ eagerness for reputable advice about contemporary treatments or diagnoses led phishing campaigns misleading users to install a remote access tool disguising itself as a version of the legitimate application developed by the Johns Hopkins University illustrating international infection rates and deaths. Other attacks have enticed panic-stricken individuals with offers of personal protective equipment (PPE), swindled healthcare workers to voluntarily disclose private information to confirm a ventilator delivery and went as far as pretending to be the United States Centres for Disease Control, the World Health Organisation (WHO) or a Human Resources Department disseminating communicable disease guidelines and policies.


What Can We Do?


Similar to Covid-19, there is no immediate cure for cybercriminals exploiting the vulnerable and the desperate. However by enforcing effective security and encryption protocols to protect electronic records and data loss prevention software to control what data is shared through emails is a great start. Healthcare practitioners, support and administrative personnel further need to be educated of malicious websites that may be inadvertently visited and shared among each other, whereas regular awareness training will ensure all healthcare employees will be able to identify and avoid potentially risky behavior.


Fact is, Cyber criminals are opportunistic and will seek any means to take control of users’ systems.