Lessons from WannaCry

Source: NHE May/June 2018

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, warns that the UK Government must take seriously the threat of a more sophisticated cyber-attack in light of last year’s WannaCry fiasco.

On Friday 12 May 2017, the WannaCry cyber-attack was a serious wake-up call for the NHS. The attack resulted in enormous disruption to health services, with over 30% of NHS trusts across England and Wales severely affected.

Also, more importantly, as a result of this major breach of security the NHS had to cancel nearly 20,000 critical operations  and hospital appointments. Furthermore, patients were diverted from the five A&E departments that were unable to treat them.

The attackers capitalised on the fact that the vast majority of the NHS’s internal computer systems still run on outdated Windows XP software. To compound this, the department’s cyber security contingency plans had not been adequately shared, and not a single affected trust passed a full cyber security inspection.

Internal communication was also at fault. As the attack unfolded, people across the NHS did not know how best to communicate with the department or other NHS organisations and resorted to using ineffective and untested ways to defend against the attack.

The NHS was, however,  extremely  lucky in the timing of this cyber-attack. The disruption could have been much worse. Fortunately, the attack happened on a relatively quiet Friday afternoon in May and through fast action, the kill switch to stop the attack spreading was identified and activated relatively quickly. Notwithstanding, the Department of Health and Social Care and its associated NHS England bodies were unprepared for the relatively unsophisticated WannaCry attack.

As we discovered during this inquiry, the department still does not know what financial impact the WannaCry cyber-attack had on the NHS. As a consequence, this is severely affecting the NHS’s ability to identify how to properly invest in cyber security in the future.

Although the department and NHS bodies have learned lessons from WannaCry, they have a lot of work to do to improve cyber security for when, and not if, there is another attack.

The recent use of a nerve agent to poison those on British soil as we witnessed in Salisbury earlier this year has understandably intensified concerns about this country’s ability to effectively respond and defend against major international threats. Additionally, our National Health Service is one of our most valuable assets and must never be allowed to become an easy target for hostile foreign actors.

In the 21st century, a cyber-attack is an unimaginably lethal weapon which can have   a huge impact on our safety and security. It must be treated as the serious and critical threat that it is. There is no reason to suspect that future attacks won’t be even more sophisticated and malicious in intent and the whole of government must recognise that it could be at risk of a cyber-attack too.


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