A recent phase of the ongoing two-pronged cyber war between Russia/Iran/North Korea and China against the United States has taken an ugly turn. The Russian faction has launched various sophisticated ransomware attacks against healthcare providers and hospital systems across the United States.
Taking into consideration the old adage: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” healthcare providers and hospital systems should immediately seek out specialized cybersecurity experts who are currently fighting this battle before it is too late.
By way of background, Uber sustained a data breach in September of 2014 that was investigated by the FTC in 2016. Uber designated its CSO – Joseph Sullivan, to provide testimony regarding the incident. Within ten days of providing testimony to the FTC, Sullivan received word Uber was breached again but rather than update his testimony before the FTC he allegedly tried very hard to conceal the incident from the FTC. Indeed, Sullivan allegedly went so far as to concoct a bug bounty program cover story and asked the hackers to sign an NDA as a condition of their getting $100,000 in bitcoin.
The Special Agent’s supporting affidavit swears that “there is probable cause to believe that the defendant engaged in a cover-up intended to obstruct the lawful functions and official proceedings of the Federal Trade Commission. . . . It is my belief that SULLIVAN further intended to spare Uber and SULLIVAN negative publicity and loss of users and drivers that would have stemmed from disclosure of the hack and data breach.”
In other words, a CSO allegedly spared his employer “negative publicity and loss of users” by inaccurately describing an incident and failing to disclose it in timely manner. Even though the alleged conduct of Uber’s former CSO may have pushed the needle into the red zone, there are also potential arguments in his favor. In coming up with one such counterargument, several Forrester analysts suggest: “Sullivan did not inform the FTC during the sworn investigative hearing because he couldn’t have: Sullivan learned of the 2016 breach 10 days later. To inform the FTC, Sullivan would have needed to reach out and inform them about a separate, new, but similar breach. There’s also some confusion as to whether Sullivan was under any legal obligation to do so.”
Whatever happens in this particular case, the fact remains CISOs sometime inadvertently play too close to the edge. The underpinnings of an incident are whatever they are – no one can or should ever try to morph them into something different. Good legal and IT counsel will mitigate loss and certain exposures but only with the assistance of CISOs and CSOs who recount events rather than fabricate them. Not surprisingly given no company is immune to a breach, it’s only the cover-up that will ever hurt and not the incident itself.
On April 30, 2020, ZDNet reported that there have been more than 1,000 SEC filings over the past 12 months listing ransomware as a risk factor – with more than 700 in 2020 alone. These filings include annual reports (10K and 20F), quarterly reports (10Q), and registration forms (S1).
Even the most sophisticated technology companies now insert the word “ransomware” into their Risk Factors section. SeeAlphabet, Inc., Form 10-Q, dated April 28, 2020, at 50 (“The availability of our products and services and fulfillment of our customer contracts depend on the continuing operation of our information technology and communications systems. Our systems are vulnerable to damage, interference, or interruption from terrorist attacks, natural disasters or pandemics (including COVID-19), the effects of climate change (such as sea level rise, drought, flooding, wildfires, and increased storm severity), power loss, telecommunications failures, computer viruses, ransomware attacks, computer denial of service attacks, phishing schemes, or other attempts to harm or access our systems.”).
As reported by ZDNet, companies as varied as American Airlines, McDonald’s, Tupperware, and Pluralsight also list ransomware as a potential risk to their business.
By inserting the word “ransomware” into a Risk Factors section, reporting companies may have elevated the relevant standard for companies who do not reference ransomware. By way of background, in October 2011, the SEC began planting cyber risk disclosure seeds when it issued non-binding disclosure guidance regarding cybersecurity risks and incidents. Back in 2011, the SEC wrote: “Although no existing disclosure requirement explicitly refers to cybersecurity risks and cyber incidents, a number of disclosure requirements may impose an obligation on registrants to disclose such risks and incidents.” Seven years later, this non-binding guidance became binding.
On February 26, 2018, the SEC issued binding guidance that recognizes: “Companies face an evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats in which hackers use a complex array of means to perpetrate cyber-attacks, including the use of stolen access credentials, malware, ransomware, phishing, structured query language injection attacks, and distributed denial-of-service attacks, among other means.” By expressly listing ransomware two years ago in its Statement, the SEC was making it quite clear that the current threat landscape includes the risk of ransomware and that directors and officers have to address this likely risk.
More to the point, the Statement and Guidance on Public Company Cybersecurity Disclosures instructs “that the development of effective disclosure controls and procedures is best achieved when a company’s directors, officers, and other persons responsible for developing and overseeing such controls and procedures are informed about the cybersecurity risks and incidents that the company has faced or is likely to face.”
Not surprisingly, the failure to disclose a prior ransomware attack would also be actionable. SeeSEC Statement at 14 (“In meeting their disclosure obligations, companies may need to disclose previous or ongoing cybersecurity incidents or other past events in order to place discussions of these risks in the appropriate context. For example, if a company previously experienced a material cybersecurity incident involving denial-of-service, it likely would not be sufficient for the company to disclose that there is a risk that a denial-of-service incident may occur.”).
If ransomware incidents were avoided altogether, however, there would be no liability attached to associated filings no matter what was communicated to the market. Moreover, even when attacks were not avoided, little disclosure risk would exist if the company applied best practices to avoid such an incident and provided an accurate accounting of what took place when an incident did take place. To that end, deploying proactive approaches considered state-of-the-art when dealing with ransomware risk will naturally mitigate against any potential SEC disclosure risk.
On April 17, 2020, it was reported that researchers at Finland’s Arctic Security found “the number of networks experiencing malicious activity was more than double in March in the United States and many European countries compared with January, soon after the virus was first reported in China. ”
Lari Huttunen at Arctic Security astutely pointed out why previously safe networks were now exposed: “In many cases, corporate firewalls and security policies had protected machines that had been infected by viruses or targeted malware . . . . Outside of the office, that protection can fall off sharply, allowing the infected machines to communicate again with the original hackers. “
Tom Kellerman – a cybersecurity thought leader, distills it this way: “There is a digitally historic event occurring in the background of this pandemic, and that is there is a cybercrime pandemic that is occurring.”
During our Cyber Pandemic, companies recognizing and properly addressing the potential damage caused by threat actors will not only survive minor short-term hits to their bottom line caused by paying outside resources, they will likely be the ones coming on top after both Pandemics subside. There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel for those willing to take the ride – just continue using trusted vehicles to get you there.
When implementing COVID-19 business continuity plans, companies should take into consideration security threats from cybercriminals looking to exploit fear, uncertainty and doubt – better known as FUD. Fear can drive a thirst for the latest information and may lead employees to seek online information in a careless fashion – leaving best practices by the wayside.
According to Reinsurance News, there has already been “a surge of coronavirus-related cyber attacks”. Many phishing attacks “have either claimed to have an attached list of people with the virus or have even asked the victim to make a bitcoin payment for it.” Not all employees are accustomed to the risks from a corporate-wide work from home (WFH) policy given the previous lack of intersection between work and personal computers.
One cyber security firm released information outlining these WFH risks. And, another security provider offers a common-sense refresher: “If you get an email that looks like it is from the WHO (World Health Organization) and you don’t normally get emails from the WHO, you should be cautious.” In addition to recommendations made by security consultants, there are privacy-forward recommendations that will necessarily mitigate against phishing exploits. For example, WFH employees should be steered towards privacy browsers such as Brave and Firefox to avoid fingerprinting and search engines such as Duckduckgo for private searches. A comprehensive listing of privacy-forward online tools is found at PrivacyTools.IO.
Criminals have already exploited the current FUD by creating very convincing COVID-19-related links. As reported by Brian Krebs, several Russian language cybercrime forums now sell a “digital Coronavirus infection kit” that uses the Hopkins interactive map of real-time infections as part of a Java-based malware deployment scheme. The kit only costs $200 if the buyer has a Java code signing certificate and $700 if the buyer uses the seller’s certificate.
At a very basic level, WFH employees should be reminded not to click on sources of information other than clean URLs such as CDC.Gov or open unsolicited attachments even if they appear coming from a known associate. Now that banks, hotels, and health providers are sending emails alerting their clients of newly-implemented COVID-19 procedures, it is especially easy to succumb to spear phishing exploits – which is the hallmark of state-sponsored groups. As recently reported, government-backed hacking groups from China, North Korea, and Russia have begun using COVID-19-based phishing lures to infect victims with malware and gain infrastructure access. These recent attacks primarily targeted users in countries outside the US but there should be little doubt more groups will focus on the US in the coming weeks. Until ramped up testing demonstrates that the COVID-19 risk has passed, companies are well advised to focus some of their security diligence on these targeted attacks.
Even though we are now on the whole facing a much lesser evil than the Swine Flu we remain exponentially more alarmed and have been withdrawing en mass from social interactions. This is obviously not a good thing but our current pandemic panic should pass by mid-April. Until then, we can continue downing the hottest drink in town just to be on the safe side.
UPDATE: April 23, 2020
The CDC reports in its latest published statistics there were 802,583 reported cases of COVID-19 and 44,575 associated deaths. Without a doubt, this pandemic is certainly much worse that the Swine Flu pandemic as previously reported by the CDC. Moreover, the current “panic pandemic” certainly shows no indications of subsiding.
On April 30, 2020, it was reported Tonya Ugoretz, deputy Assistant Director of the FBI Cyber Division, stated the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is currently receiving between 3,000 and 4,000 cybersecurity complaints daily – IC3 normally averages 1,000 daily complaints.
UPDATE: May 6, 2020
On May 5, 2020, a joint alert from the United States Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre warned of APTs targeting healthcare and essential services.
The alert warned of “ongoing activity by APT groups against organizations involved in both national and international COVID-19 responses.” This May 5, 2020 alert follows an April 8, 2020 Alert that warned in broader terms of malicious cyber actors exploiting COVID-19.
APTs are conducted by nation-state actors given the level of resources and money needed to launch such an attack. Moreover, they generally take between eight and nine months to plan and coordinate before launching. It is particularly disheartening that these recent attacks include those launched by state-backed Chinese hackers known as APT 41. As one cybersecurity firm points out in a recently-released white paper: “APT41’s involvement is impossible to deny.”
Distilled to its essence, the uncovered APT41 attacks mean that before COVID-19 was even on US shores, Chinese state-actors were planning attacks targeting the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. One can only hope the cyberattacks were not coordinated alongside the spread of the virus – a virus that only became public months after a coordinated attack would have been first planned.
The apparent reason for the large fine was the fact that “in 2010, [the Office for Civil Rights (OCR)] investigated URMC concerning a similar breach involving a lost unencrypted flash drive and provided technical assistance to URMC. Despite the previous OCR investigation, and URMC’s own identification of a lack of encryption as a high risk to ePHI, URMC permitted the continued use of unencrypted mobile devices.”
As with most OCR enforcement actions, there is typically an industry wide message with each large fine – in this case there are two, namely the failure to encrypt will simply no longer be tolerated and once given a pass by OCR be sure not to waste it.
UPDATE: December 3,
In keeping with its apparent practice of announcing HIPAA violation resolutions in clusters, on November 7, 2019, OCR announced a $1.6 million penalty against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission for violations of the Privacy and Security Rules had between 2013 and 2017. The primary breach occurred when “an internal application was moved from a private, secure server to a public server and a flaw in the software code allowed access to ePHI without access credentials.” OCR also determined that in addition to the impermissible disclosure, there was a failure “to perform an accurate, thorough, and enterprise-wide risk analysis that meets the requirements of45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(l)(ii)(a) [Security Rule].” Interestingly, the OCR applied its new civil money penalty caps published in April.
And, on November 27, 2019, OCR revealed its enforcement settlement with a hospital network that sent bills to patients containing “the patient names, account numbers, and dates of service” of 577 other patients. Sentara Hospitals – based in Virginia and North Carolina, did not think such information was protected health information (PHI) and only notified the 8 patients where there was also a disclosure of treatment information. Given that Sentara “persisted in its refusal to properly report the breach even after being explicitly advised of their duty to do so by OCR”, it was stuck with a $2.175 million penalty. Given that PHI has been interpreted to include healthcare payment information linked to a specific individual, Sentara was obviously taking a chance when it ignored OCR’s advice. On the other hand, protected health information is expressly defined to mean “individually identifiable health information” so there was at least a colorable argument that payment information – even if related to the provision of healthcare, is not “health information” in any direct sense. 45 CFR § 160.401.
Providing some year-end advice that should also not be disregarded, on December 2, 2019, OCR released its Fall 2019 Cybersecurity Newsletter focusing on ransomware and how covered entities and business associates should apply the Security Rule as a mitigation tool against this threat.
These latest announcements were clustered to push one primary message, namely do not disregard explicit counsel from OCR given that when it comes to the OCR it most certainly holds a grudge when ignored. In addition, CE’s and BA’s are well advised to deploy an enterprise-wide risk analysis that determines whether there are out-facing vulnerabilities that should be patched. And finally, as shown by the significant amount assessed against the University of Rochester Medical Center, future disregard of encryption as a risk mitigation tool will likely lead to enhanced penalties going forward.
Despite the recent public trend of paying these extortion demands, the FBI has long advocated not paying a ransom in response to a ransomware attack. Specifically, the FBI has said: “Paying a ransom doesn’t guarantee an organization that it will get its data back—we’ve seen cases where organizations never got a decryption key after having paid the ransom. Paying a ransom not only emboldens current cyber criminals to target more organizations, it also offers an incentive for other criminals to get involved in this type of illegal activity. And finally, by paying a ransom, an organization might inadvertently be funding other illicit activity associated with criminals.”
In fact, some have argued that by having insurance for this exposure the industry itself is actually at the root of increased ransomware activity. Those in the security industry correctly point out that what drives these actors turns more on quick conversion rates rather than whether an insurer stands behind a victim. To suggest the insurance industry is the cause of this problem gives threat actors way too much credit while completely ignoring the benefits derived from the cyber insurance underwriting process.
In the same way it is never too late to go back to school, it is never too late to begin importing a more robust security and privacy profile into an organization – which is the only real way to diminish the risk of a ransomware attack. As suggested in 2016: “Given the serious threat of ransomware, businesses large and small are reminded to at least do the basics – train staff regarding email and social media policies, implement minimum IT security protocols, regularly backup data, plan for disaster, and regularly test your plans.”
New York now is now moving on a bill, S5642, that is even more protective than the California Consumer Privacy Act while New Jersey is in the process of merging two proposed bills that may lead in the same direction. There has been opposition to these proposed laws by those companies who have the most to lose by stringent data privacy controls.
If passed, however, these new laws may actually prod Congress to finally move on a comprehensive privacy framework – one that might preempt aggressive laws such as the ones proposed by New York and New Jersey and the one already passed in California, in favor of a much more tempered approach.
In other words, the Internet Association and its lobbying partners may actually win the war if these bills are enacted and it can just get Congress to act in a preemptive manner. Thankfully, the momentum has been consistently on the side of consumer protection and any hope of bipartisan action on the part of Congress remains a long-shot given the current political environment.
On May 6, 2019, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that Tennessee-based Touchstone Medical Imaging agreed to pay $3,000,000 and adopt a corrective action plan that includes the adoption of business associate agreements, completion of an enterprise-wide risk analysis, and additional comprehensive policies and procedures applying HIPAA Rules. Touchstone – which provides diagnostic medical imaging services, was notified in May 2014 by the FBI that one of its FTP servers allowed uncontrolled access to protected health information (PHI). This uncontrolled access “permitted search engines to index the PHI of Touchstone’s patients, which remained visible on the Internet even after the server was taken offline.”
During OCR’s investigation, Touchstone acknowledged that the PHI of more than 300,000 patients was exposed including, names, birth dates, social security numbers, and addresses. OCR’s investigation found that Touchstone “did not thoroughly investigate the security incident until several months after notice of the breach”. As a result, Touchstone’s notification to individuals affected by the breach was considered untimely.
Given last year’s summary judgment win by OCR and the facts presented by the Touchstone incident, it is not surprising that this significant settlement – which was one of the largest to date, was reached. FTP servers have long been a threat vector – even if set up and run properly, so not unlike the clarion calls initiated for encryption and social engineering training, back office IT support should be sophisticated enough to adopt a means of file transfer that applies state of the art security.
According to Guidance provided earlier this month by the Attorney General’s Office, the type of consumer information subject to this new law includes: “People with incomes over $100,000,” “People who like to play billiards,” or “People preparing for a wedding.”
In addition to an annual registration, data brokers must also maintain certain protective measures involving those administrative, technical and physical safeguards appropriate for the scope and size of the business or face a potential unfair or deceptive practice claim under the state’s consumer protection law.
The statutory civil penalties of this new law are actually quite limited given that a data broker required to register who fails to do so will be subject to a penalty of $50 for each day it fails to register, beginning February 1, 2019, up to a maximum of $10,000 per year. The real bite is found in the potential civil action that may be brought under Vermont’s Consumer Protection Law, namely potential treble damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees. By linking privacy violations with an established consumer protection law, the Vermont statute nicely meshes existing law – and related interpretative rulings, into an effective privacy battle axe.