LONDON (AP) – The Irish health service shut down its computer systems on Friday after it was targeted in a ransomware attack by what it called “international criminals”.
Appointments and elective surgeries have been canceled at several hospitals and Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said the disruption could last for days.
“There’s a lot we don’t know, but it looks like it was a ransomware attack by international criminals,” Varadkar said. “The problem could last all weekend and into next week, unfortunately.”
Ransomware attacks are typically carried out by criminal hackers who scramble data, cripple victims’ networks, and demand a large payment to decrypt them.
Varadkar called the attack “very serious”.
“It comes at a time when the health department is extremely busy doing a lot of other things,” he said. “This is going to be a very difficult time for the health service.”
Health Services Executive CEO Paul Reid told broadcaster RTE that health officials had “taken a precautionary step to shut down many of our key systems in order to protect them.”
“We are at the very beginning of understanding the threats, their impact and their attempt to contain them,” he said.
The health department said appointments for coronavirus vaccinations were not affected. Varadkar said emergency services, ambulance services, general medicine systems and pharmacy systems were also not affected, but said there would be “major problems” for the services. radiology, radiation oncology, elective surgeries and obstetrics and gynecology appointments.
Dublin’s Rotunda Maternity Hospital said it was canceling most routine appointments due to IT issues, calling the situation a “critical emergency”.
Healthcare systems have been the target of ransomware tactics in the past. Two hospitals in France were hit by ransomware attacks in February that crippled their phone systems and forced surgeries to be postponed. In September, a seemingly misguided ransomware attack against a german hospital caused computer systems failure and resulted in the indirect death of a woman. The same month, a ransomware attack crippled a chain of more than 250 American hospitals and clinics.
In 2017, Britain’s National Health Service was hit in a cyberextortion attack, forcing hospitals to shut down wards and emergency rooms and turn away patients.
Irish attack highlights concerns about the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to escalating attacks from hacking groups and criminals, said Steve Forbes, government security expert at Nominet, the UK’s web domain registry .
“National health services are already under pressure from the pandemic, which will make this ransomware attack even more devastating. This fact will not be lost on hackers, ”Forbes said.
In the United States, the country’s largest fuel pipeline was hit by a ransomware attack a week ago. The disruption of the Colonial pipeline caused long runs to gas stations due to distribution issues and purchasing panic, draining supplies to thousands of gas stations. It restarted operations on Wednesday.
Forbes said the attacks on the pipeline and the Irish healthcare system both show that “criminal groups are choosing the targets that will have the greatest impact on governments and the public, regardless of the collateral damage, in order to use the most leverage ”.