NHS Information Security Audit delay increases cyber risk
Covid19 has posed what may be one of the biggest challenges faced by our NHS to date. With the pandemic demanding the attention of frontline workers and management alike, other pressing concerns have been forced on the wayside. One topic that has temporarily been put “on hold” for now are the NHS’s annual security audits on its IT systems. NHS trusts do not need to complete their standard cyber security checks until September 2020 so that its managers can concentrate on handling the Covid19 outbreak. These security checks usually include submitting data protection and security toolkits (DSPTs) to regulators, who determine organisations’ risk of cyberattacks.
Although the decision is fairly understandable given the circumstances (for example, it will reduce some non-essential travel and contact, and allow resources to be allocated towards more time-critical issues in the wake of the pandemic), NHS Digital’s chief executive, Sarah Wilkinson, has warned about “opportunism” by cyber-attackers hoping to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As cyber-attackers are known to have targeted several other institutions during this period, including HMRC and the WHO, one might consider that cyber security is even more important now. With the high volume of data, with some data being particularly valuable and/or sensitive, the NHS is far from immune to cyberattacks. In fact, the healthcare sector is one of the worst affected by data breaches.
The WannaCry ransomware attack of May 2017, in which 80 NHS trusts were seriously affected and 19,000 patient appointments were cancelled, brought the NHS’ vulnerability to cyber-attacks to light. This attack cost the NHS an estimated £92 million; the majority of which was spent recovering its IT systems. In the event a similar attack was to take place during the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences could be economically and socially catastrophic.
Since the WannaCry attacks, changes to regulatory frameworks placed additional security requirements on organisations providing essential services (OESs), which includes NHS trusts. The NIS Regulations (the “NIS Regulations”), implemented in 2018, focus on the security of OES’s IT systems and include requirements such as implementing technical and organisational measures in information security systems to try to prevent security incidents and impose reporting requirements on OESs in the event of information security incidents and breaches of the NIS Regulations may result in fines of up to £17 million. Furthermore, since many OESs are controllers of personal data, they may be liable under the Data Protection Act 2018 in addition to the NIS Regulations, in the event they fail to sufficiently safeguard personal data, or an information security breach also leads to a data breach. This could result in significant costs in the event liability arises under both regimes. Additionally, there are specific reporting requirements for security breaches under both regimes, responses to which could further stretch scarce NHS resources.
The NHS’s statement re-confirmed the importance of remaining resilient to cyber-attacks during the period of the Covid-19 response, but whilst OESs are putting its cyber security audit submissions on the backburner, what can practically be done to minimise risks of cyberattacks without overburdening NHS’s management personnel?
With the majority of cyber breaches arising from human error, NHS trusts can send further warnings to staff about safe behaviours online, such as checking recipients, avoiding downloading suspicious attachments and avoiding forwarding suspicious emails to colleagues. Furthermore, NHS trusts can encourage IT departments to ensure systems are updated to deal with new vulnerabilities as they develop. However, NHS trusts should be aware of the potential risks and as well as the fact that the delay in the deadline to submit a DSPT is a temporary reprieve, not a substitute for fully implementing cyber security protections; therefore, where NHS trusts can continue to test and implement cyber security measures without adversely affecting their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, they should do so.
For detailed information about how your organisation can implement effective cybersecurity measures, see our Cybersecurity Toolkit
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