Hackers target health-care groups amid outbreak

Hackers are zeroing in on government health agencies and hospitals, who are already struggling to keep pace with the coronavirus pandemic, as a way to make money and cause disruptions in the midst of a global crisis.

These concerns were highlighted Monday when Bloomberg News reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), one of the agencies on the front lines of the outbreak, had been breached by hackers. 

A spokesperson for HHS subsequently told The Hill that the agency “became aware of a significant increase in activity on HHS cyber infrastructure and are fully operational as we actively investigate the matter.”

HHS Secretary Alex Azar played down the incident, saying at a White House press conference on Monday that there was “no penetration into our networks” and “no degradation of our ability to function or serve our important mission here.”

HHS has not been alone in facing a potential breach as concerns around the spread of the coronavirus ramped up.

Last week, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in Illinois had its website taken down by hackers. While officials were able to reboot the website by Friday, the disruption made it difficult to provide accurate information to around 200,000 in the district.

Outside the U.S., the second-largest hospital in the Czech Republic, which is responsible for running tests for coronavirus, was hit by a cyberattack last week that according to CyberScoop took out some computer systems and delayed operations.

Both the district health agency and the hospital were hit by ransomware attacks, a type of intrusion in which hackers lock up a system and demand payment to give the user access again, though with no guarantee they will get their data back.

These types of attacks have been increasingly rampant across the U.S. over the past year, crippling local governments including Baltimore and New Orleans, along with school districts and public libraries. But they can be particularly pernicious for hospitals, where unlocking a network can mean the difference between life and death for patients in some situations, making healthcare groups a tempting target for hackers.