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“WannaCry” Ransomware Holds True to its Name

“WannaCry” Ransomware Holds True to its Name

This week, countries around the world faced an unprecedented cyber security attack. On May 12, 2017, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Lead for the Department of Health and Human Services Laura Wolfe first reported it as a “significant security issue.” Hours later, the Department of Homeland Security’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team warned the public of a malware virus called “WannaCry.” As with typical ransomware, an individual would receive an email purposely designed to look like an email sent by a business or individual the recipient may be familiar with and contain either a link or attachment. Once opened, the virus spreads giving the attackers access to computer systems and the ability to encrypt the information and extort money from the victim.

What’s the relationship between HIPAA and ransomware?

When a health care entity is the victim of a ransomware attack, the protected health information accessed during the attack is considered to be breached. Therefore, unless the affected entity can prove the information was encrypted prior to the attack, it must go through all of the usual steps to comply with the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule. This includes, but is not limited to, reporting the breach to people whose information was compromised no later than 60 days from discovering the breach. If the breach includes the protected health information of greater than 500 people, there must also be contemporaneous notice to HHS and news media outlets.

Why can’t you just follow the money?

Often, individuals connected to ransomware activity will use a currency called “Bitcoin.” Since around 2009, bitcoin has allowed for the exchange of goods and services without regard to the identity of the sender or recipient. Since there is no bank to act as a conduit, there are no transaction fees which have allowed the use of bitcoins to increase in popularity among merchants. However, the anonymous nature of the transactions makes it difficult, if not impossible, to trace. This anonymity makes it a currency of choice among hackers.

Who does this affect?

Many health care entities built their information technology infrastructure around Windows XP when it was introduced in 2001. Windows XP was discontinued in 2014 and is no longer supported by Microsoft. As a result, it has not received necessary updates or security patches. Due to its initial popularity, many entities may still have at least one Windows XP device and have been sluggish to fully convert to a more secure operating system. Fortunately, as of the date of this article, experts have been able to identify the threat and dramatically slow the spread of the most recent virus. However, health care entities must be vigilant about addressing these cyber security concerns. Hackers are aware of these vulnerabilities and will continue to use their resources to exploit those weaknesses.

How can you protect yourself?

Make sure that you are using up-to-date antivirus software, and be sure to implement updates and patches as they are made available. Educate your staff on the importance of not opening suspicious emails, and teach them how to look for subtle irregularities hackers often use when they are attempting to pose as someone familiar to the recipient. Additionally, ensure you and your staff never click on links in emails that appear bizarre. A common example is an email from your banking institution that you were not expecting or a link to collect a fictitious lottery prize.

Victims of this cyber crime are encouraged not to pay the ransom because most often the information is still not made available by the hacker. Instead, if you believe that your system has been exposed to this malicious software, please report this threat to authorities. You can begin the process by contacting your FBI Field Office Cyber Task Force by visiting  You can also report cyber incidents to the US-CERT and FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at

Samarria Dunson, J.D., CHC, CHPC is attorney/principal of Dunson Group, LLC, a health care compliance consulting and law firm in Montgomery, Alabama.

Posted in: Liability

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