Patching up life support: why critical care is at critical risk

Posted by Gemma Sirett on August 7, 2020

Keeping people alive is unquestionably more important than patching software, but unpatched software is vulnerable to exploitation, and won’t keep anyone alive if it leads to a breach of your IT systems, rendering them unavailable.

After WannaCry exploited unpatched Windows XP vulnerabilities and cost the NHS £92m, healthcare providers across the country carried out a mass upgrade to Windows 10. Making the move to the newer OS is synonymous with increased security (you’d be worried if it wasn’t…), but there is growing concern that it was seen as a tick box, one-off exercise. Now the OS that was exploited is no longer in use, healthcare providers feel safer. This is a dangerously complacent assumption – new vulnerabilities are identified almost daily, creating an ‘arms race’ between attackers and vendors; one looking to exploit the other looking to get patches out.

The issue is further compounded as not all systems made it to Windows 10 – legacy IT systems remain where the service they provide can only run on the legacy OS. This particular stumbling block can make the health sector an easier target. Cyber attackers aren’t renowned for being a particularly moral bunch, so if they can shut down a hospital’s life support system and demand a hefty a ransom to get it back up and running again, they’ll take that payday without a second thought as to the consequences.

Let’s not forget that despite its wealth of valuable confidential data, the healthcare sector isn’t always necessarily the prime target for cyber criminals.

In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, certain threat actor groups have claimed they won’t be targeting healthcare providers, but can’t rule out accidentally compromising systems if they’re not patched properly. Without a robust patch management programme in place, the sector can easily become an unintentional casualty of cyber attackers looking to exploit any vulnerabilities in any business. Just look at WannaCry.

The NHS is the nation’s beating heart, and healthcare providers know better than anyone that a beating heart stopping is a very bad thing. You can’t fix vulnerabilities you don’t know about, but you can guarantee threat actors will find them. You need full visibility of where your IT estate’s weaknesses are, and clear guidance on how to fix them. Even if you’re not a target, an unpatched infrastructure leaves you open to exploitation by opportunistic cyber attackers and widespread malware campaigns.