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Frontline care demands innovative defenses 

In what was a pivotal moment for healthcare security, the 2017 WannaCry attack affected over a third of NHS hospitals in the UK.  The attack led to thousands of cancelled appointments, £92m in damages, and, most concerningly, left hundreds of vulnerable patients stranded as ambulances were rerouted. For many cyber security professionals, this attack propagated a paradigm shift in the industry’s defensive strategy. The days of historical-based, ‘rule and signature’ detection were over.  

With today’s pandemic raging, having a tool which stops cyber-attacks as they emerge is vital – operational downtime is simply not an option. In the event of a ransomware attack on an NHS trust, it would not only be administrative tasks which would be hindered, but the very devices that are saving lives every single day. The implication? Staff on the front line would be reduced to pre-digitalized methods of care, bereft of not only internet-connected ventilators but basic patient notes such as blood type and diagnosis. The consequences would be devastating.  

One industry professional quickly recognized the need for a forward-thinking approach to cyber defense. Craig York, CTO at Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, deploys Darktrace’s self learning AI throughout the organization’s entire digital workforce, and entrusts this technology with the safeguarding of hospital systems – a crucial ally in fighting back against cyber-threats. 

“Autonomous response is the future for defending against fast-moving and unpredictable threats, before they do damage,” according to York. “Darktrace fights back on our behalf so we can focus on strategic tasks which require a human touch.” Such abilities leave the hospital time for technological innovation, rather than continual fire-fighting – placing the focus firmly on optimizing patient care.  

In securing their digital workforce, hospitals face an uphill battle. Even before the pandemic, latent vulnerabilities existed in their security systems, with the FDA issuing an alert in October 2019 over 11 cyber security vulnerabilities in hospital technology, dubbed URGENT/11. And with a recent Interpol article warning that ransomware attacks are increasingly targeting hospitals, healthcare facilities must be more vigilant than ever. Upgrading their often-aging systems to the latest cyber security measures needs to be a priority. 

Like many others, Milton Keynes University Hospital has adopted state-of-the-art technology to improve patient care and experience – and indeed is at the forefront of many medical developments. The world’s first hospital to host a stress echocardiography interpretation course, it also has implemented an eCARE patient record system, and an internal view of the hospital on Google Maps to ensure patients know where they are going.  

Such digital transformation projects aid efficiency and improve patient support – ultimately saving lives. But they require an agile cyber security posture which can adapt as the hospital grows – keeping pace in protecting all the latest devices, patients, and staff. Just as doctors and nurses require protection to safely care for their patients, digital systems too require adequate security to safeguard the integrity of medical data, and the general running of their operational systems. 

Many healthcare facilities, from NHS Trusts to private clinics and research centers, are turning to Darktrace’s self-learning AI for protection. Inspired by the human immune system, this technology works under the assumption that malicious actors will inevitably get past the outer layer of defense – be that firewalls, or intrusion detection systems. The real challenge is neutralizing attacks as soon as they enter the digital workforce, and before they precipitate a disaster.  

To do this, the AI must learn the unique ‘pattern of life’ of every user, machine, and container in the hospital’s environment – what is normal, and what is not. It is this understanding of normal, or in other words ‘self’, that enables the identification of the most subtle indicators of threat as soon as they emerge.  

But, detection is only half of the immune system’s ability. The far more impressive side of it is its response and neutralization of threats. Similarly, Darktrace’s AI behaves like a digital antibody, acting with surgical precision to eradicate the malicious actor without impacting legitimate activities. As such, if the ICU’s reception computer was infected with malware, it would still be able to carry out its normal functions like scheduling rotational nurse shifts – but the malware activities would be blocked, with the device confined to its pattern of life. In other words, only its version of normal activity would be permissible.  

For Craig York, such technology has been a real game-changer. “Darktrace is another pair of eyes, one that never sleeps and takes action in seconds to protect every digital asset we have. It is fundamental in helping us defend our network against cyber-attacks.” 

As the pandemic rages on, technology which is ever vigilant and always ready to defend the healthcare workforce must be a priority. Without adequate cyber security, front-line workers will struggle to treat patients, and combat today’s greatest threat. Hospital information systems demand the best protection – healthcare services depend on it.